Jerry Harris has built one of the most consistent pigskin programs in Tucson on a brand of smashmouth football that’s equal parts methodical and befuddling.
The Lions won the 3A state title in 2015 and finished as runners-up in 2017, and finished 5-6 in last season after falling to Page High School, 48-2, in the opening round of the playoffs.
Harris has coached at the northside school since 2016, and knows that this year’s squad will have to clean things up to avoid a similar fate this fall.
Harris believes this year’s collection of young men is in solid position to do just that, thanks to a solid cast of upperclassmen, led by junior back Evan Lovett.
Lovett, who burst onto the scene as a sophomore in 2018, is tasked with one-upping his eye-popping stats from a year ago.
It’s a tall task, with Lovett leading the Lions in rushing yards (1,192), rushing touchdowns (13), and receiving yards (204) last season.
Harris is confident that Lovett and company can reach newfound heights this season, given the daily energy put forth by the team, on the field and in the weight room this summer.
“We’ve had some of the best energy, and some of the most positive vibe and attitude that we’ve had really, with any team that I’ve been part of,” Harris said. “I tell the kids every year, every team has its own DNA and even though you’ve got a lot of the same guys back, every team’s a little bit different. And so far, so good with this particular DNA.”
Harris believes that Lovett is bound for glory in the Lions’ backfield, with a unique skillset that allows him to torch opponents with relative ease.
“Evan was kind of our all-everything guy last year as a sophomore,” Harris said. “Thankfully, we have him for two more years and he’s just a special athlete.”
Lovett said he learned a lot, both on and off the field as last season, teaching him the ropes in a hard-knock sport. He’s confident that this year will be more of the same, given the glut of talent on the offensive line blocking for him this fall.
“Last year was a bit surreal for me, because some of the stuff that I did honestly surprised me,” Lovett said. “This year, I know what I’m capable of, and what this team is capable of, so it should be a lot of fun.”
Lovett believes this year’s Lions are hitting on all cylinders in practice, which will help them as they wind down their summer prep work.
“I feel like we’re all locked in right now,” Lovett said. “Nobody’s trying to one-up each other. We’ve all got one goal in mind, and that’s to compete for a state title.”
Lovett’s sentiments on the team’s chemistry were shared by fellow junior Phillip Raica, who will see time on the team’s offensive and defensive line this year.
Raica believes the Lions have a real shot at returning to their 2017 level of success this fall, thanks to the camaraderie shared during summer workouts.
“I really like the mentality of this team,” Raica said. “This team shares a really good brotherhood, we’re a family. I feel like we actually care about each other, and we have the will to fight.”
The key to keeping that brotherhood alive, according to Harris, rests on the team’s ability to dedicate themselves to learning the intricacies of the sport.
So far, Harris has been impressed by his players’ ability to do just that, with a teamwide embrace of honing the fundamentals that enable success on the gridiron.
“We’re going to run the ball, and then we’re going to run the ball, and when that’s not effective, we’re going to run the ball,” Harris said. “What we definitely hope to improve this year is our effectiveness and our efficiency in the pass game.”
Raica said last year’s team lacked the type of cohesiveness and desire that separates championship caliber teams from the fray.
The junior is confident that this year’s squad features both attributes, which should allow the team to take that next step as a program.
“I would say there just wasn’t enough spirit, not enough trust, and not enough leadership in that group,” Raica said. “This group, I feel as if we might be able to have the ability to do that, and have the right mindset to succeed.”
Harris knows that the Lions run-heavy offense, which is predicated on pre-snap movement and quick handoffs to their backs, lacks the allure of a more spread-out attack. He also knows that such a system works for his program, with the team’s success of-late serving as proof.
For now, it’s all about doing whatever it takes to be prepared for the team’s opener against Rio Rico on Aug. 23.
“We’re never going to throw the ball 50 times in a game, that’s just not who we are,” Harris said. “But when we do throw the ball, we need to be effective and we need to be efficient. And we need to improve in those two areas from last year in order to be successful the way we’d like to be successful.”
Harris is excited to open the season at home, so the Lions can try to get off to a good start, which would allow them to reach the sport’s upper echelon this fall.
“It’s always nice to start the season on the right foot,” Harris said. “And we have a phenomenal and unique home football experience. It’s like our own little Mayberry. It’s really a special environment.”