A throng of fresh-faced athletes whirl their way around the turf playing surface at Marana High School, practicing a set of football plays on a scorching-hot afternoon.
The players and coaches on the field are using the practice as a way to build the Tigers’ offensive and defensive schemes. The coaches are also using the spring and summer months to build bonds and trust with players, so the Tigers can make another playoff run this fall.
Second-year coach Louie Ramirez wants to use the camps to build greater camaraderie, so the Tigers can go a step further than they did a year ago. His first Marana squad posted a 7-4 record, falling to Cienega in the 5A first round, 49-28, to cap off an up-and-down year.
Fast-forward six months, and Ramirez and his staff are tasked with trying to one-up the team’s success.
The Tigers are tasked with replacing prodigious gunslinger Trenton Bourguet, as well as receivers Tariq Jordan and Alfred Ebunoha, all of whom graduated. The defensive unit also lost several key players, including TJ Cephers and Daniel Bertelsen, to graduation.
Despite losing so many foundational players, Ramirez is confident that this year’s team can succeed, if for no other reason than their willingness to listen to his coaching staff.
“We have a benchmark now, and I think that we can do the same as—and even better than we did last year,” he said. “And a lot of it comes down how a lot of these younger guys are going to be playing that got experience last year and are going to have that chip on their shoulder and want to make that same playoff run and go deeper into the playoffs.”
Ramirez said building a culture founded on the fast-paced offense implemented by previous coach Andy Litten, combined with a newfound impetus on disciplined defense, has been a key to the team’s success.
Ramirez expects big things from his defense this fall, with exceptional talent at the cornerback and safety positions, with players like Zamir Pierce and Chika Ebunoha roaming the secondary.
The second-year coach didn’t name a starter to replace Bourguet at quarterback, but hinted that Kai Spencer has a definite shot at taking the starting job.
Ramirez said that fans can expect the same smash mouth football that helped the Tigers reach the playoff for a third consecutive season last fall.
“Offensively, we’re going to stick to our bread and butter; we’re going to run the football,” Ramirez said. “We’re going to create lanes in our passing game and set up the play-action pass, and we’re going to be very multiple in what we do and defensively, nothing’s changed.”
Hooked on fundamentals
Last year’s 21-point playoff loss has lit a fire under those that played in the contest, according to Pierce.
The slender cornerback touched on the team’s mindset during spring and summer camp, as the team looks to build on their past success.
“The main motivation we took was to work harder, watch film and see what we did wrong [against Cienega],” Pierce said. “This year, we all want to improve on both sides of the ball. We always try to get better. It’s really important to all of us to do so.”
The key to the summer’s practice schedule for Ramirez is to build the team’s fitness level and confidence so they can rotate players with ease during the grind of the regular season. Doing so will enable the Tigers to rotate players onto the field without missing a beat, which allows the Tigers to contend with deeper teams from Phoenix.
“That’s why it’s so important that as you develop these guys, you’re always giving them reps, because you don’t want to roll with the starters only,” Ramirez said. “They’ve gotten snaps, and our seniors, God bless them, they did a phenomenal job for us. But now, it’s time to move towards the future and get these guys ready to roll because this is their opportunity now.”
The Tigers, who kick off their season at home against Scottsdale’s Horizon High School at 7 p.m. on Friday, August 23, will look to reach newfound heights this fall.
The key, according to Ebunoha, is the team’s growing familiarity with Ramirez’s offensive and defensive systems. Ebunoha said Ramirez’s system has its similarities and differences to those run by Litten’s staff, but that everyone enjoys the way the team is run from top to bottom.
“Last year, it was really different from Litten’s system,” Ebunoha said. “This year, we had to get used to him, getting to know him as a coach, and as a person. It was really good. So, this year is going to be really fun.”
The foundation of that fun is the care that Ramirez shows each of his players in spring and summer practice.
The former NAU grad assistant knows how valuable teaching players individually can be, so they can gain confidence when the season starts. Ramirez believes he’s honed his systems in all facets of the game to suit his players’ unique talents, with the team’s wins serving as proof of the work that he and his staff have put in.
“Coaching is all about relationships; and making sure these guys know that I care about them and making sure that they have my trust and know that I have theirs to do their job,” he said. “And when the players start holding each other accountable, you know you’re doing things right, both on and off the field and that you’re heading in the right direction.”