ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Del Norte Knights have a lot to play for in the coming high school football season.
First and foremost they are playing for one another.
After narrowly missing last season’s playoffs and enduring the painful offseason loss of a teammate, the Knights have made pulling together priority one. Their new white practice jerseys are emblazoned with “Band of Brothers” above the letters KWA (Knights With Attitude).
Some of the bonding was by design. Third-year coach Bruce Binkley encouraged his players to become tighter during the offseason through sleepovers and nonfootball activities.
Unfortunately, Del Norte’s family also lost a member when rising senior linebacker Jacob Gutierrez was killed in a July 11 traffic accident.
“Jacob was a good friend,” senior lineman Martine Huerta said. “It’s a huge loss, hard to talk about even now.”
Binkley agreed, adding that he was initially unsure about how to address Gutierrez’s loss with the team. But the Knights resolved to take something positive from the memory of their fallen teammate.
“Jacob’s mom talked to us,” senior quarterback Tyrelle Jackson said. “She said to take the loss as motivation to do things right. Instead of trying to win for him and making it a burden, try to get an ‘A’ in class. Honor him that way.”
Rather than dedicating the season to Gutierrez’s memory, the Knights have elected to think of him while playing for each other.
“Jacob was with us since freshman year,” Huerta said. “He’d want us to win for us.”
Binkley has been duly impressed with his players’ response to adversity.
“These kids have handled a terrible loss with class and dignity like nothing I’ve seen,” Binkley said. “It’s like they’ve been teachers and the coaches have been students.”
Now that preseason practice has started, Del Norte’s players have turned their focus toward making 2014 memorable. They finished 5-5 last season, ending a string of six consecutive losing campaigns but falling short of the winning record and playoff berth they coveted.
Both goals could be within reach this fall. The Knights have more size and experience than in Binkley’s first two seasons and are moving into a district in which they figure to be contenders.
In recent years, Del Norte was part of a three-team football district with St. Pius and Moriarty. Only the champion Pintos advanced to the state playoffs last season.
The new District 2-5A roster is comprised of Del Norte, Bernalillo, Capital, Española Valley and Los Alamos. Who’s the favorite?
“I’ve actually seen articles about every team but Española Valley,” Binkley said. “All of those teams are saying they’re going to win the district championship or compete for the championship, so who knows? I’m just glad we’re in a five-team district and have a true district season to look forward to. We’ll see what happens when we get there.”
Facing new district foes, the Knights plan to unveil new looks on offense, defense and special teams. They lost standout running back Daryl Wiggins to graduation, but Jackson believes his team has more than enough weapons to compensate.
“We’ve been working all summer on the passing game,” he said, “and we’ve got the tools. We’ll be a lot harder to defend.”
There will changes on the other side of the ball, too. Defensive coordinator Fred Romero, the former La Cueva head coach, has introduced a new scheme that Binkley says takes better advantage of his team’s speed.
With two seasons now under his belt, Binkley knows preseason optimism doesn’t always translate to regular-season success. But Del Norte’s players feel their greater dedication to the program and each other will provide an edge.
“We’re faster and stronger at every position,” senior wide receiver Gami Antillon said, “but the big thing is we’re more of a team this year.
“We really are Knights with attitude, too. You’ve got to have attitude to play this game.”