EDITOR’S NOTE: Today continues a series of stories previewing the 2012 high school football season for schools in the West Side Journal and Rio Rancho Journal areas. Coming Thursday: West Mesa.
We’re closer. That’s what Jim Danner says.
Closer, as in the Rio Grande High School team that Danner coaches is closer to becoming more relevant in Class 5A football than it was 12 months ago.
“I’m very enthused,” Danner said. “We think we can have a winning season.”
The Ravens are coming off a 3-7 season, a record that’s a little misleading. Rio Grande played some feisty football throughout 2011, and it was certainly an upgrade over what was there before Danner arrived.
But, as Danner said very early on after being hired, this was never going to be a quick fix.
As Rio Grande enters its second season under Danner, the Ravens still face some obstacles desipte returning 14 starters.
“We’re really young,” Danner said.
Having said that, Rio Grande can slot seniors into many key positions, starting with quarterback Dustin Lamar. He only began taking up the position in high school.
Lamar said the Ravens can be a surprise team – if, he said, “as long as we keep playing competitively like we did last year and wanting to win.”
But the most important position on either side of the ball, aside from QB, might be fullback.
Rio Grande has four capable ones, Danner said, including senior Ryan Lucero and junior Elmer Marquez.
With a run-oriented attack, Rio Grande wants to take advantage of its athleticism at that position.
“You better be ready to stop the fullback,” Danner said with a smile. “Woody Hayes (the former Ohio State coach) would be proud of me.”
They’ll be running behind an offensive line anchored by a pair of seniors: guard Adrian Aranda and tackle Zach Garris. Aranda has moved from tackle, and Garris is an ex-center. They’ll play next to each other.
That offensive line is young, with two sophomores, although there is more experience at the skill positions, including wide receiver Isiah Ulibarri, a 6-foot-3 senior.
The defense should be improved, Danner said, led by senior end Robert Peralta and a veteran group of linebackers led by Cameron Sanchez.
“Rio Grande brings the pain,” said 300-pound nose tackle Jeremy Vargas.
But Danner said this defense must be physically fit if the Ravens want to have strong legs during the key second half of the season.
“We just need to be consistent and play both halves,” said Aranda. “We just need to get more in shape for the whole game.”
Danner said the Ravens often struggled after halftime with conditioning.
“We didn’t play bad, we just didn’t finish games,” he said. “When we got with people that were our own style, we did a lot better.”
Even with a productive offseason, Danner knows that there is no way to gauge the Ravens’ progress until the season begins.
“We’ve gotten a lot stronger,” he said, “but we have to see if it will relate to football. That’s the key. How much are we improved? We’ll find out when we put the pads on. But right now, it’s night and day from last year.”
Rio Grande opens Sept. 1 against Del Norte. The Ravens have a tough nondistrict slate that also includes Valencia, La Cueva, Sandia and Carlsbad.
Then it’s on to what is now a six-team District 5-5A, now that Atrisco Heritage Academy has been added. Danner said it’s a district that can go to anyone, although Rio Grande is far from the favorite.
“We have about 27 lettermen returning, and that’s a good place to build,” Danner said. “We lost some good seniors, but we played a lot of kids.
“We can already see (the benefit of that). We are already this summer where we were three weeks into the season last year.”