ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Overlooking the Volcano Vista Hawks in the latter stages of the 2013 season was not hard to do.
They were, after all, a last-place team in their own district.
But here’s the part that’s so easy to forget: Volcano Vista not only qualified for the playoffs as a last-place district team, but nearly did enough to warrant a first-round home game in last season’s Class 5A playoffs.
And the Hawks have designs on bigger and better things in 2014.
“We look great,” said senior two-way tackle Brian Trujillo. “We can be a top-five team, easily.”
Volcano Vista dropped its final four games last season, including three district games in 1-5A – clearly the state’s most demanding league – and a first-round postseason loss at Clovis.
That losing skid was not the ideal way in which to head into the offseason.
“We had to get closer as a team,” Trujillo said of the task facing the Hawks since that playoff loss at Leon Williams Stadium in Clovis. “Team chemistry at the end of the year wasn’t what we wanted it to be.”
The Hawks probably won’t be among the most experienced teams in Class 6A this year. Only four starters return on offense and defense, and the starting lineup is top heavy with 16 or 17 juniors – a setup similar to that of Valley in 2012 and Atrisco Heritage in 2013.
“They don’t have that extra year (of experience),” Volcano head coach Chad Wallin said. “We’ll go as far as their learning curve takes us.”
The Hawks open Aug. 30 with nemesis Sandia at Community Stadium.
While the juniors will be asked to mature quickly, Volcano Vista does have in uniform one of the true impact players in 6A in senior tailback Dominico Chavez. He ran for 1,400 yards last season and nearly 1,200 yards as a sophomore.
“It helps (having him back) because of what we return in the line,” said Wallin, referring to an untested group that has only one returning starter: the 290-pound Trujillo. “You don’t have to hold blocks as long, and he can help that line get better because of the type of runner he is.”
Added Trujillo, who has committed to New Mexico State: “It’s awesome blocking for (Dominico), because he always finds the hole, even if it’s just a foot wide. And we don’t have to worry about just one guy tackling him.”
Talented junior Josh Williams returns at quarterback, his second season as the starter.
“I’ll be a lot more comfortable this year,” Williams said. “This year, I have to break out and be a leader, and I have to get better. Last year, I wasn’t used to the speed (at the varsity level).”
Wallin said it was understandable that Williams should struggle as a 10th-grader, given the brutality of the Volcano Vista schedule and his QB’s youth.
“He can make every throw, and he’s very athletic,” Wallin said. “And the game is slowing down for him. It is becoming easier for him.”
Chavez, a quick but equally bruising runner, gives the Hawks – and Williams – a reliable safety valve out of the backfield.
While 6-foot-5 receiver Connor Anderson graduated, Wallin and Volcano Vista feel they’ve lined up an excellent replacement in 5-11 junior Helio Lopez.
“I feel we have more weapons on offense (than last year),” Wallin said.
The strength of the Hawks’ defense is in the center, at linebacker, where Wallin expects big things from the likes of juniors Brian Parks and DeAndre Booker. The line and secondary are less experienced, Wallin said; one of the Hawks’ defensive backs, Jackson Schaap, missed last season with a back injury.
Schaap and senior lineman Matt Bowen must lead what will be a junior-dominated defense, according to Wallin.
“What I like about this group as a whole is their work ethic,” Wallin said. “It’s as good or better than we’ve had in a long time. This may be the strongest team I’ve had in five years.”
Strong enough, he said, to challenge Cibola, Cleveland and Rio Rancho for supremacy in a district that figures to be at least as competitive – physically, as well as emotionally – as it was last season. The Hawks had a brilliant midseason win over Mayfield last year, but that sort of got lost amid that late-season swoon.
“There were some issues we faced at the end of the year that were not related to talent or effort, but continuity,” Wallin said. “We can’t have cliques.”
Trujillo said that chemistry issue has been ironed out over the past few months.
“All the teams have talent,” Trujillo said. “It’s not about that. It’s about the team that is closest at the end of the season, and who wants to work the hardest.”