Last year was Bob Vance's first as the head football coach of the Pusch Ridge Christian Lions, but he guided the Lions to a 7-3 mark and their fourth straight trip to the playoffs.
For the Lions to extend their run to five, they'll have to do so without their leading running back, Andy Knox, and their leading receiver, Joey Degroff, from a season ago. Knox led the team with 533 yards rushing, averaged 7.5 yards per carry, and scored six touchdowns. Degroff caught 15 passes for 270 yards.
Vance said he's happy to have seniors Greg Schimke and Brett Overstreet back. Quarterback Schimke threw for 1,206 yards, a 56 percent completion percentage, 11 touchdowns and only two picks last year. Overstreet, a running back, gained 233 yards, averaged 5.8 yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns.
An odd phenomenon at Pusch Ridge is that while the team would appear to be seasoned, it lacks varsity experience.
"We have 19-20 seniors," Vance said. "But most haven't played before."
Vance is looking for contributions from wide receivers Trever Cook and Mitch Woody.
"They're quick and elusive," Vance said. "As a team, we have a lot of quickness."
Pusch Ridge has two defensive starters returning at the same positions, but with defensive coach Mark Fritzen in tow, look for the defense to be a focal point once again.
"He's one of the best defensive coaches around," Vance said.
Fritzen was the architect of a defense that shut out the opposition four times a season ago. After losing their first two games, the Lions defense jelled and held each opponent to seven points or less the rest of the year.
The rest of the year, that is, until Pusch Ridge Christian lost its playoff game to Camp Verde, 23-12. Returning to the playoffs will be no easy matter.
"San Manuel, Hayden and Ray are all tough schools," Vance said. "The Phoenix schools are pretty tough too.
"We hope to repeat as regional champions," he said.
Pusch Ridge schedule:
Sept. 4 – at Northwest Christian
Sept. 11 – Phoenix Christian
Sept. 18 – Miami
Sept. 25 – at Baboquivari
Oct. 2 – at San Manuel
Oct. 9 – Canyon State
Oct. 16 – Hayden
Oct. 23 – at San Carlos
Oct. 30 – Ray