JUNCTION READY TO TURN THE PAGE
Young Tigers have adjusted and are committed to running Sirko's system
The 2016 season was a tough one for Grand Junction High School’s football team.
The Tigers were adjusting to a new coach and system. They weren’t having a lot of success on the field. They dealt with on-the-field losses and the death of a teammate.
The returning players have plenty of memories about the things they overcame. But well before the Tigers’ Sept. 1 season opener against Central at Stocker Stadium, members of this year’s team weren’t afraid to talk about how the events of last season brought them together.
“This is a fresh start. It’s a full fresh start,” senior wide receiver and defensive back Dante Gonzalez said. “We’ve taken the stance that if anything from last year is still in your head, you’ve got to put it behind you, come in here and play your heart out. It’s time to turn the page now.”
The Tigers say this season will be more positive.
Second-year coach Mike Sirko, who has coached high school football in Colorado for close to four decades, has handed out plenty of accolades to his players during preseason practice drills.
And there are signs the positive reinforcement is working: the coaching staff last week praised 10 players on the team who had never played football before.
“That’s one of the biggest things for us,” Sirko said. “We really want to build this program so we can turn this thing around.”
The Tigers have won eight games in the past three seasons, including 2-8 campaigns the past two.
Their big on-field adjustment came when the Tigers went from the up-tempo offensive style of former coach Robbie Owens to the power-I looks that come in Sirko’s system.
“Everyone has gotten really comfortable with the running game,” senior running back Logan Grossnickle said. “We’ve embraced things, we’re talking more and we’re all looking out for each other more.”
There will still be a little bit of a learning curve since Grand Junction graduated its top two tacklers and top three rushers from last year. Among them was quarterback Jax Nourse, whose 1,406 yards of total offense led the team. Also gone is running back Michael White, whose 1,055 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns were also team highs.
Those losses leave plenty of underclassmen from this year’s team to pick up the slack.
“We lost most of our line and a lot of our skill players,” Sirko said. “We’re hoping our defense will be able to help us hang on until we get our offense rolling, because our offense is where we lack the most experience.
“But there, we’re trying to keep things simple so there’s not a lot of thinking going on. All they have to do is let off the brakes and go play football.”
The guy who’ll be pushing the gas pedal will be Clay Payne, who played exclusively on defense last year but, will lead the Tigers’ offense as its quarterback.
“He’s doing a lot better than everyone thought he was going to because he hasn’t played quarterback since his freshman year,” Grossnickle said. “He’s stepped up and is managing the team really well. It’s been a nice surprise.”
Junior Camden Dottson returns as the Tigers’ leading receiver from last season, finishing with 21 catches for 295 yards and a touchdown.
Junior receiver JT Skalecki is also expected to contribute to an offense that could open up its passing game as the year progresses, Sirko said.
Dottson had a team-high four interceptions in 2016.
Grand Junction went 2-2 in games when the Tigers created two or more turnovers and came close to knocking off Central when the Tigers forced four turnovers.
The Warriors held off a Grand Junction comeback attempt and won 33-31 in last year’s season opener.
Many of the underclassmen from last year are back this season, so the on-field experience will be invaluable. So will an emphasis on staying healthy, especially with a small group of seniors.
“I love the upperclassmen we have, but we are thin there,” Sirko said.
But if things come together the way the Tigers hope, improvement should happen.
“We’re all human, we all have the same emotions and we all have to look out for each other,” Grossnickle said. “And that’s big. Knowing the guy beside you is going to give 100 percent effort to help you, can only help us get better.”