North Valley eager to atone for 2010

MERLIN — You don't need to be a deep-thinking systems analyst to detect North Valley's downfall on the football field last season.

With four sophomores and three juniors dotting their defensive lineup, the Knights yielded an average of 39.1 points per game on the way to a 1-8 record. The low point came in their next-to-last game, when Phoenix romped to a 70-22 victory.

"With all those young kids out there, we got beat up on the defensive side of the ball," North Valley coach Todd Willaman says. "The kids haven't forgotten. They want their pride back."

North Valley defensive coordinator Neil DeForrest took the trouncings personally, Willaman says, and vowed to have the Knights engage in more tackling drills and live scrimmages once the pads went on in fall practice.

But pride and technique aside, the fact that seven starters return from last season's defense is significant.

"I really think our defense is going to be head and shoulders better than last year," Willaman says. "The kids are bigger and stronger, and just having gone through what they did last year is a big motivator."

Returning starters include linemen Dustin Lyda, Cody Tollner and George Farmer, inside linebacker Brandon Gray, outside linebacker Jeremiah Rusk and cornerbacks Nick Todaro and Austin Neil.

North Valley expects to get an additional boost from Austin Beard, a transfer from Grants Pass who figures to start at safety on defense and at a wide receiver position on offense.

The Knights' offense, which came on strong during the latter half of last season behind then-sophomore quarterback Tristan Burke, seems destined for better days, too.

Lyda (guard), Tollner (tackle) and Jacob Conrad (center) return up front, while Rusk and Todaro are back at wide receiver.

Beard and Daniel Dean, a highly skilled senior who missed most of last season with a broken leg, are also being penciled in as pass targets in North Valley's four-receiver sets.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Burke has shined in fall camp, showcasing his powerful arm.

"He probably wasn't quite ready to step in last year as a sophomore, but he settled in toward the end of the season," says Willaman, noting that the Knights averaged 25.5 points over their final four games. "And he's so much better now."

No running back had established himself during two-a-day practices, but seniors Gray and Neil and junior Kyle Rose make for some intriguing candidates.

"Neil is our speed guy, Gray is our power guy and Rose makes great cuts," Willaman says. "All three are going to carry the ball. Their workload will be partly determined by how much defense they're playing. We want fresh guys out there."

North Valley, a prideful program just three years removed from a berth in the Class 4A state quarterfinals, might be a year away from another such run. But Willaman isn't conceding anything just yet.

"Everyone's good in August," he says, "but I'm really optimistic."

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