ELKO — After one of the more successful seasons in recent years, the Elko football team must start from the bottom up.
The Indians began the 2018 season with a 5-0 record — losing four of their next-five games — righting a two-game skid with a 42-13 victory over Lowry.
However, the regular season closed with a 7-0 home loss to Spring Creek on Oct. 19, 2018.
Hosting in the first round of the 3A North regional playoffs, No. 6 Lowry turned the tables mightily against No. 3 Elko with a 41-13 road blowout over the Indians — the game that mattered most on Oct. 25, 2018, providing a 57-point swing from the first meeting.
In 2019, Elko will hit the gridiron with considerably less experience and proven-varsity weapons.
“We are young. We only have about 10 seniors and four of them didn’t play last year,” said Elko coach Luke Sellers.
While the number of returning players has taken a nose dove, Elko’s overall numbers have gone up — Sellers seeing about a 10-person increase from 2018 — the Indians currently fielding approximately 35 athletes.
Senior Rolando Acosta made a splash during his first year of varsity football.
As a junior, Acosta closed the season with 1st-Team All-League and 2nd-Team All-State selections on the defensive side of the ball.
Playing at nose guard and standing 5-foot-5 and weighing 160 pounds, Acosta routinely beat his man across the line of scrimmage with a lightning move and sheer will.
He ranked 15th in the state with 78 tackles – including 60 solo stuffs.
Sept. 21, 2018, will be a night that summons bad memories for Fernley, as Acosta turned in one of the truly-astonishing defensive performances one will ever see from a high school football player.
He tied his season high with 10 tackles (nine solo), made a sack, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass and blocked a punt – the stymied boot picked up by teammate Ronin Rowley and returned 34 yards for a touchdown to close the first half – leading an Elko defense that made seven takeaways in the game.
As was the case in his ranking for tackles, Acosta finished 15th in the state with 3-1/2 sacks – making 1-1/2 on Aug. 31, 2018, against Dayton.
Acosta will likely need to provide the Indians with offense in 2019, factoring in the mix of Elko’s running back stable.
Of Elko’s 2,089 rushing yards a team in 2018, the Indians graduated or moved away 2,015 of the total.
Acosta gained eight yards on only four carries last year, Elko’s leading-returning back coming in the form of senior Cameron Marvel — who tallied 37 rushing yards on 15 attempts and scored twice as a junior.
“I think (Lincoln) Ratliff and (Brayden) Barnhurst, (Kaiden) Cervantes, Alex Perez and Nick Kinder will see carries,” Sellers said. “A lot of them will have to play defense too, so we’ll see quite the shuffle there. We have pieces to the puzzle, but we have to find the best way to fit them together.”
At quarterback, Sellers will likely start left-handed junior Jake Zeller — who only threw three passes as a sophomore and completed one for 10 yards.
He rushed the ball 13 times for 15 yards.
Providing protection in the passing game and clearing the road in the running game will be senior Max Shurtz on the offensive front, currently making snaps at center.
On the offensive line, he will be joined by a committee of juniors — including Calvin Burden, Gage Steilman and Brig Johnson.
Sellers also expects to give reps to junior varsity call-ups Fabian Castaneda (junior) and Dillan Burden (junior) and senior Cameron Christensen.
He also likes the potential and athleticism of junior Shawn Sessions, who may play both on the offensive line and at tight end.
If Elko’s run game didn’t take enough of a hit, the passing cupboard was left even barer by the 2018 team departures.
Of returning players, now-senior Corbin Notestine leads the pack after catching two passes for 24 yards as a junior.
Of the Indians’ 618 receiving yards, 590 were eliminated due to graduation or moving.
“At receiver, Notestine is the only one with much varsity experience. Damon Jardine, Zeth Kinterknecht, Manny Alvarado, Perez, Beau Mansanarez and Derek Peters could all see time,” Sellers said.
Last season, Shurtz tallied 24 tackles (15 solo), 2-1/2 sacks and recovered a fumble from his defensive tackle position.
He is the second-leading tackler who is returning for the Indians behind Acosta’s 78 stuffs.
Acosta will play nose guard once again, Shurtz joined at defensive tackle by Steilman.
As a sophomore, Steilman recorded 12 tackles and one sack.
Defensively, Zeller spelled the starters in Elko’s secondary and made 23 tackles (16 solo).
“I don’t know who we are going to put at defensive end, Marvel has seen some action there,” Sellers said.
He notched 14 tackles and a sack last season.
At linebacker, Sellers hopes juniors Darin Legrand and Johnson can take the next step in their development after serving as backups at the position as sophomores.
Of Legrand’s 21 tackles last year, 11 were solo.
He also tied for second on the team with two fumble recoveries.
Johnson posted 12 unassisted tackles in his 14 stops and booked a sack last season.
“Our secondary will be by committee, about 20 of them right now,” Sellers said. “We don’t have anyone in our secondary who has made an interception at the varsity level. The only person who made a pick last year who is coming back is Rolo and he’s my nose guard.”
“I think our defensive line will be good and allow us to set up in our 50-front. A lot of what we can do will depend on our secondary,” Sellers said. “If we can play man coverage, that will give us more options to dial up blitzes and put pressure on the quarterback. If we have to play zone, we will be limited as to what we can do.”
Sellers hopes to at least disrupt opposing quarterbacks, which he says will “make the secondary better” if throws are not in time.
“With Rolo, Shurtz and Steilman we’re pretty set there,” he said. “We’re pretty unsure about everywhere else right now.”
While many areas revolve around question marks, Sellers said Elko has “way more length than last year across the board.”
Sellers hopes Elko’s weakness of inexperience can turn into a strength as the season progresses.
“It will be a challenge early on the field and for our coaching staff, but I actually think it can become a strength,” he said. “The more guys we can get in the game, it will provide a situation to hire and fire faster. It will come down to who wants to pay attention and who wants to work. We can take kids out, coach them up and put them back in.”
There is probably not a team in the league that last more talent and major contributors from last season than the Indians, due to both graduation and a huge move.
Now-senior Colby Tiner was poised to the Indians’ main cannon in 2019.
However, a move to Phoenix has placed Elko in an uphill climb due to the glaring void.
Following a torn ACL before his sophomore season even began, Tiner returned for the Indians as a junior in 2018, earning a 2nd-Team All-League selection on special teams at punter.
He could flip the field position with some lengthy boots and well-placed knocks, averaging 34.5 yards per punt with a long of 45 yards.
Tiner was extremely proficient at pinning opponents deep in their own territory, his six punts inside the 20-yard line tying for the league high.
He gained honorable mentions at two spots; running back and kicker.
Tiner led the Indians with 124 carries (tied for eighth in the league), totaling 721 rushing yards (seventh in the 3A North) and five touchdowns on the ground with one TD catch.
As a kicker, he tied for the league high with four field goals — including a long of 41 yards — ranking fourth in kicking points (35) and extra points (23).
He banged home 23-of-26 PATs and 4-of-8 field goals.
A 3A North 1st-Team All-League selection at kick returner, running back and cornerback — graduated Cooper Jones was selected as the best kick return specialist in the state for the second year in a row.
He finished second in the state with 271 yards on kick returns in 10 attempts, his average of 27.1 yards ranking first among players with double-digit returns.
His long of 78 yards came on Sept. 29, 2018, on the road, in Truckee, California.
Jones ranked fourth in the state with 144 yards on eight punt returns, 87 of which coming late in the first half for a touchdown of the Indians’ home playoff loss against Lowry, on Oct. 25, 2018, at Warrior Field.
Along with his 1st-Team All-State status as a returner, Jones was also selected a 2nd-Team All-State player in the other two phases of the game — offensively and defensively.
At running back, he finished eighth in the state and rushed for 863 yards on 108 carries — averaging eight yards per tote — tying for 17th in attempts.
He finished the season with nine rushing touchdowns, averaging a TD every 12 times he touched the football.
When not used as a ball carrier, Jones was dangerous when he left the backfield — catching 15 passes for 349 yards (11th in the state) with three receiving TDs.
He accounted for 57 percent of Elko’s total passing attack of 614 yards for the season.
His average of 23.3 yards per reception led the state among players with double-digit catches.
Defensively, he tied for sixth in the state with four interceptions — recording one against Dayton and Fallon — notching a pick in each contest versus Lowry during the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.
From the edge of Elko’s field goal defense, Jones used his quickness and speed to beat the chip around the outside — blocking two kicks.
For the season, he finished with 57 tackles.
Graduated outside linebacker/defensive end Carl Hansen — depending on the alignment of Elko’s 50-base defense — was another player for the Indians who made opposing coaches rethink their approach.
For his efforts, Hansen added to his 1st-Team All-League defensive selection with a 2nd-Team All-State honor.
Hansen finished fifth in the state in tackles with 99 stops (74 solo) in nine ballgames.
He averaged 11 tackles per game, the second-best total in the state.
On Sept. 21, 2018, in a home victory over Fernley, he booked a season-high 18 tackles (13 unassisted), tallied a sack, defended two passes and blocked a field goal.
Hansen tallied double-digit tackles in six of the nine games he played.
For the season, he made 5-1/2 sacks, ranking ninth in the state — recording 1-1/2 sacks in the Indians’ home opener on Aug. 31, 2018, versus Dayton.
In his final season in maroon and white, Luis Garcia spearheaded an attack that racked up 2,089 yards on the ground in 388 totes, also yielding a 5.4 average and 22 rushing TDs for the Indians.
Paired with his 2nd-Team All-Offense selection, Garcia garnered an honorable mention on the defensive front — posting 23 tackles and 2-1/2 sacks.
The 2nd-Team All-Defense for local selections was led by cornerback Christian Quintana, who routinely turned defense into offense.
Prior to the postseason, Quintana led the 3A North with six interceptions, only to be passed after by three INTs in the playoffs by Fallon’s Sean McCormick — who led the league with eight picks.
Elko’s best corner at 5-foot-4, 140 pounds, Quintana was another aggressive tackler who would stick his face into oncoming contact — finishing the season with 43 tackles.
Rowley gained an honorable mention at defensive end on the left side — tallying 45 tackles and 3-1/2 sacks — recovering a team-high four fumbles, blocking a punt and returning a blocked punt for a touchdown.
Chris Meza, Casey Bruns
Middle linebacker Chris Meza and cornerback Casey Bruns each tallied 44 tackles, Bruns adding an interception, each earning honorable mentions at their respective positions.
On the offensive line, Riley Hooper was another honorable mention and bulldozed a path for the Indians’ running backs and provided pass protection.
Defensively, he made 43 tackles, 2-1/2 sacks and recovered a fumble from his linebacker position.
Opposite Quintana, Landon Dente made 35 tackles, intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles — his most-thrilling play of the year coming on a 94-yard scoop and score to close the first half on Sept. 21, 2018, against Fernley — gaining an honorable mention by the league.
The Indians will scrimmage Saturday, in Battle Mountain.
Elko will open the season at home, facing up-and-coming South Tahoe at 7 p.m. Aug. 30, at Warrior Field.
In last year’s meeting, Elko gutted out a 26-14 road victory over the then-sophomore-heavy Vikings.
“We are going to need the juniors to take the bull by the horns and play like seniors quickly,” Sellers said.