NEW TALE FOR TIGERS
Fresh faces, same game for Owens' Grand Junction squad
Tyler Heinsma, Austin Lewis, Theron Verna, Kaleb Johnson, Quinton Walton, Michael McKnight, Robbie Gonzalez, John Wiman, Dion Martinez.
The list goes on with a few more names, and they make this point: Grand Junction graduated a whole bunch of starters, many of them off to play college football, from last year’s football team that won the Southwestern Conference, then won one Class 5A playoff game before closing the books on an 8-3 season.
That suggests the Tigers don’t return much as they try to keep the recent run of success going under seventh-year coach Robbie Owens.
But the Tigers did a fair amount of platooning, and the cupboard is far from bare as they say goodbye to the SWC and hello to a Front Range conference: the 5A South Metro.
Eight players who started last year are back, and three of them — wide receiver/defensive back Jack Parsons, tight end/linebacker James Antonucci, and lineman Austin Gray — started on both sides of the ball, accounting for 11 positions.
They provide a good nucleus, and Owens said a combination of size and speed is ready to blend in with the returnees.
“We have a lot of guys who haven’t had that Friday night lights experience,” Owens said. “There are going to be some growing pains.
“It’s one of those years, we may not have the stars, but we have a great group of kids and team concept, and we’re excited to see what they’ll do.”
None of the aforementioned graduates are easily replaced, and chief among them were Heinsma, a two-year starter at quarterback, and Verna, who played wherever Owens asked him to line up, which was darn near everywhere.
Vying to take the reins of the offense are senior Michael Poland and sophomore Jax Nourse. Owens said Poland knows the nuances of the offense, makes good reads and is a good runner.
Nourse is a big, strong kid, and Owens calls him athletically gifted, but injuries have kept him off the football field for two years, so he’s behind in experience and understanding the Tigers’ offense.
“Once he gets that experience, he’s going to be a very special player,” Owens said.
Owens added he expects to play both quarterbacks during the first few nonconference games, much like he did Heinsma and Wiman two years ago, and then decide on a starter. Owens said he spent a lot of time trying to get both quarterbacks comfortable with Grand Junction’s offense because being comfortable makes a world of difference.
“I think we saw that last year, how much it meant to have Tyler Heinsma comfortable,” Owens said.
Replacing Verna probably requires three players, Owens said, but he thinks Brody Cupp, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound starter at tight end last year, can become almost as versatile. A sprinter in track and field, Cupp also will start at outside linebacker.
Lewis rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season, Heinsma surpassed 1,000 yards rushing, and Martinez and Verna both ran for more than 200. No one else had 100 yards, but Owens said junior Michael Rogers is another big, strong kid who likely will start, and Owens anticipates four or five players getting carries.
Parsons averaged 25.4 yards per catch on 17 receptions last year, and on defense he tied for the team lead with three interceptions. He’s coming off a knee injury but appears to be ready for his senior season.
Antonucci was third on the team with 71 tackles, and he made eight catches as a tight end. Owens said he probably should have utilized Antonucci more on offense last year, and he’ll try to remedy that this year.
There’s inexperience in the backfield, but Owens said Grand Junction’s no-huddle, power pistol can be adapted to his personnel, and he thinks the offense will remain high-powered.
“Our expectation is we feel we can go out and score 40 points every game,” Owens said.
One of the keys to getting the new players acclimated will be the linemen on both sides of the ball. The Tigers have size similar to two years ago — Gray is 275 pounds, as are Ben Schettler and Dante Stewart, Nik Schwietert is 270, and Angel Bautista-Ponce is 265 — and Owens said there is depth at the position.
“We feel really good about this group and how they’ve jelled together,” Owens said. “Their work ethic in the weight room has been unbelievable.”
Owens said the first few games will be tough and telltale in establishing the Tigers’ identity. Grand Junction opens at Montrose, the runner-up in Class 4A last year, then plays Fairview, Class 5A’s runner-up last season.
If nothing else, the Tigers will have good preparation entering their new conference, where Owens calls Arapahoe the favorite, and he considers Heritage to be solid program year in, year out.
As for the Tigers, he thinks they can be right in the thick of things at the top.
“When I look at the schedule, I think there’s no reason we shouldn’t be battling for another conference title. It’s just going to have a different name to it.”