This Friday, Aug. 26, the 2016 prep football party gets started. Some games will match big programs against big programs, already jockeying for playoff positioning. Other games may feature big programs against smaller programs willing to take a beatdown or two early in the hopes of being better prepared for the November and (hopefully) December postseason.
Then you have an opening game like Poly and St. Genevieve, which squares off at 7 p.m. The teams share the same field at Poly High School — the Parrots usually play there on Friday, the Valiants on Saturday — and this game should easily fill the stands on a hot August night in the Valley.
A rivalry game? It’s not quite there yet. The teams met previously in 2014 and 2015, and the Valiants won both games by lopsided scores. But “The Rumble at Roscoe,” as the contest is titled, is becoming something more that just a nonleague matchup of Sun Valley neighborhood schools.
Both teams expect to rebound from losing years.
Poly went 3-7 overall last season, and has endured back-to-back three-win seasons after going 9-5 in 2013 and reaching the City Section Division III championship game.
Poly Coach Jose Campos initially expected a move to a senior-heavy team this season. But he had to dismiss a few malcontent players, and will now depend on a few more juniors who have played more junior varsity football than varsity.
At the same time, Campos said, “we’re definitely more experienced in playing the game. It’s been some growing pains we had to go through. But…I think we’ll be ready.”
He has experience at quarterback. Andrew Diaz, a senior, passed for 986 yards and 18 touchdowns (against 13 interceptions) last year behind an inexperienced offensive line. This season the linemen are stronger and more seasoned, so Diaz — whose older brother Scott played quarterback on the 2013 team — should have better protection.
“As long as he stays committed to being the commander-in-chief of the offense, I think he can lead this team to where we think we should be,” Campos said.
Diaz, 17, said he will not make the contest “bigger” than it is.
“I’m trying to treat it as just another game,” he said. “But they have beaten us two times before. That will be in the back of my mind, because this is my last chance against them.”
Among the receiver options, Jacob Flores, George Cortez and Ruben Lopez have genuine speed. And tight end Isaiah Lopez, who spent much of last year playing defense, can block and catch.
But the wild card could be Andrew Manriquez, a junior, who pushed himself to gain 15 pounds of muscle in the weight room over the spring and summer and who plans to be a pain for defenders who may not expect much from a 5-feet 7-inch wideout.
“We’re hard workers,” said Manriquez of his teammates. “And we know that hard work can beat talent on any day.”
The Valiants were 3-7 in their first year under Billy Para. But Para was working under difficult conditions. He was not named head coach until last July, and couldn’t start until after the section’s mandatory 21-day “dead period” when coaches and players cannot have any contact.
This time the players have had off-season and summer workouts under Para’s staff. Among the goals: getting back into the section’s East Valley Division playoffs. But Friday’s game comes first.
“It has become a rivalry game because last year they gave us a trophy [for winning],” said Para, who has 16 returners of which seven are starters. “I know [Poly] wants it this time. So I’m getting our guys pumped up for it. I expect a very interesting game.”
Valiants seniors Elijah Ebe, Darrius Gaines and Jordan Blackman are among the key performers. Between them, the trio has interest from such schools as Columbia, Western Colorado, Western New Mexico, Portland State, Washington State, Eastern Washington and the University of San Diego.
Ebe, 17, a tight end and defensive end, said he would enjoy a competitive contest.
“We feel we can win. but if they give us great competition, it’s a much better game,” he said.
Gaines, 17, a running back and linebacker, said he expects the pre-game atmosphere “to be at an all-time high. Our fans say “Cage the Parrots” and they don’t say things like that for other teams. The fans definitely get into it.”
For Blackman, 16, a wide receiver and cornerback, if the Valiants execute the game plan, they should expect success.
“We need to follow the process honestly and not get too high on the ‘rivalry’ aspect of the game,” he said. “Our focus isn’t only on this game, it’s what we can produce toward the end of the season…so we can still be playing.”
Come Friday, the buzz should be obvious. And whoever wins has momentum going forward into the rest of the season.
“It’s [still] one of 10 games,” Manriquez said.
It could also become more than that.