Andy Litten knew when he took the Marana coaching job that it would not be a quick fix. Inheriting a zero-win team, was not easy, but changing the culture that begun to accept losing. After two successful seasons, which the Tigers have won nine games in the last two seasons after winning just eight the previous four seasons, the goal is simple; get to the postseason.
The Tigers were two heartbreaking losses away a year ago. They lost a pair of road games, in the Phoenix area to Poston Butte and Maricopa by a combined four points, both featuring late fourth quarter scores by the host teams.
Now Marana wants to win the close ones. The team is 0-5 in games decided by 14 points or less the past two seasons, but have won their nine games by a combined 319 points, with the closest game being a 25-point win over Catalina Foothills in the 2012 season finale.
“That is a culture thing,” Litten said of the close losses. “When we are the better team last year our kids were almost bullyish and pounded teams. When we played teams that pushed back we struggled. We spent a lot of the off-season working on that and that is a culture thing, you have to learn how to win and sometimes you have to lose those games before you can win them.”
The Tigers return a lot of talent, but have some key pieces to replace, none more so important than quarterback Ben Honea. The dual threat quarterback was the team’s offensive spark last year, as well as one of southern Arizona’s top punters. He was responsible for over 2,000 yards of total offense and 24 scores.
There are two candidates battling for the job to replace Honea, a three-year starter. Skylor Lee was Honea’s primary back-up for most of last season, while Connor Leavins was the freshman team starter, but got some varsity playing time in the season finale against Flowing Wells, where he led the Tigers to a scoring drive.
“It is kind of nice to have that competition all the way through,” said Litton of his quarterback battle. “Skylor Connor are both leaps and bounds ahead of where we had to start when we first started with Ben.”
Whoever takes snaps for the Tigers will have some nice weapons to work with. Senior running back Bradley Gonzales is a punishing runner who can get tough yards, but is also able to break big runs. Tight end Travis Howard is also a playmaker, but his season is in jeopardy. Although he provides a big target over the middle with reliable hands, he is nursing a baseball injury that may cost him the season. If he is able to play, he gives the Tigers another big, physical player, he’s able to shed tacklers and grind out extra yards.
Garrett Gillespie is another reliable pass catcher. Other less proven players have a lot of experience as well.
“We are really deep at skill, a lot of guys who have been in the program three years and know what they are doing,” said Litton.
The line will be anchored by Christian Lopez, who Litton calls “one of the toughest kids on the team.” Newcomer Garrett Dunn could not play last season due to family issues, but he has stepped in and gives the Tigers a mobile 300-pounder in the middle.
Defensively they will be young, especially at linebacker where Manny Miranda, Jon Leon and Chuy Hernandez will try to replace standouts like Austin Soszynski and Colby Cecil. Add to that the fact they are breaking in a new defensive coordinator and there could be a few growing pains early on. Former Catalina Foothills Head Coach Scott Cortese replaces Gary Minor. Both Litton and Cortese coached under Minor at Ironwood Ridge and know each other quite well.
“It’s also very exciting for me to be able to coach with Coach Cortese again and see the progress already in the defense,” Litton said. “We are focusing more this year than ever on tightening out defense up and he’s doing a great job.”
Howard, Brandon Westfall and Storm Downing all have experience on the defensive line, while Hector Mims returns to lead a fairly experienced group of defensive backs.
The schedule is fairly kind, three of their five road games are against teams that had losing records a year ago and only one game is out of town. The two Phoenix area teams on the docket have to make the trip south down I-10. The schedule is a bit back loaded as they get CDO and Catalina Foothills in weeks eight and nine.