HEBER — Winning football state championships is fairly frequent for Round Valley through the years, and this year a new coach believes that legacy can resume.
With a successful program comes pressure on the head coach, however, and Brad Baca welcomes that. Baca had been on the Elks coaching staff for 10 years but now is the head coach, taking over for Marcus Bell, who resigned in June after a 10-year run that included the school’s most recent state title in 2019.
“There is some pressure. I’m not going to lie,” Baca said Thursday at Round Valley’s off-site training camp in Heber. “There’s pressure that comes with it. I never had the ambition to become a head coach. I was never out there looking to be a head coach. It kind of fell in my lap. I was asked if I wanted to do it. For these kids I said I want to stick around, I want to help out and to keep this program going because I love Round Valley, I love the fans in Round Valley, the people of Round Valley.
“This whole Mountain has some of the best people in the world. Yes there’s pressure. You’ve had (Tot) Workman, you’ve had (Russ) Semore, you’ve had Bell that just left. Some of the best coaches in the White Mountains have been at Round Valley so it’s some pressure to live up to that but I believe with the coaching staff we have they help take some of that pressure off of me.”
“We have a good group of coaches that are still on from before and we’ve also taken on a couple of new coaches,” Baca said, referring to former Show Low coach Dustin Cluff and former Safford coach Michael Alba. “So we’ve added a couple of people with a lot of experience and then we have a few that have been with us eight to 10 years. It’s been a pretty smooth transition. Coach (Marcus) Bell built a great culture of winning and we’re just trying to continue that on, doing some things on are own that are new and build on some things and make it a little better. It wasn’t that big of a deal to transition. The kids are buying in and the administration’s been great to us. It’s been a good switch so far.”
The Elks held a four-day camp from Tuesday to Friday at Mogollon High School in Heber, a new location for them, after previous years in Alpine, Concho and Vernon. The staff at Mogollon housed the Elks overnight and provided three meals a day, all of which was an outstanding arrangement, Baca said.
“It works out good for us. We’re grateful to them. It was good to be able to get here. They have good people here. It’s a good place to be,” he said.
The Elks have a bevy of returning players from the 2020 team that went 6-3 and 3-1 in the 3A East.
“We have a lot of experience up front on our offensive and defensive lines. We got some really good skill players,” Baca said. “We feel we are going to be very competitive. The 3A East is going to be tough. The 3A conference as a whole is going to be super tough. We might not have the numbers of everyone but that’s not an excuse to us. We’ll play anybody. We’re willing to go anywhere, play anybody and we feel we have the kids, that tough-minded kid that they just want to play football and they’ll do anything.”
Baca considers several players as team leaders, those on both lines and skill players as well.
“I think we have a few that are really good team leaders. Keanu Clark (junior) is our starting left tackle and he’s going to start at defensive end this year. He started as a freshman. He started as our offensive tackle as a freshman as a 13-year-old. He’s a quiet leader. He’s not a real loud person, but he never stops working. He’s always going, he helps the young kids, the other guys. He’s been a special player for us two years. This is only going to be his junior year and it’s amazing how far he’s come and what he can do.
“Another one is Seth Wiltbank (senior) who has been our free safety and he started at tailback last year. He’s a very impressive football player and he’s even a better person. He’s just a very well-rounded kid. He’s another one who’s quiet; he leads by example, but when he does something everyone else follows. The kids love him, we love him and he has done everything we’ve asked and more. So he’s another great leader.”
Senior center Jadon Cisco will start for the third consecutive season, Baca said.
“Brandon Strickland, (junior) Jovan Ortiz (senior) will be amazing this year at receiver and corner. So we have a lot of kids coming back, Morgan Orona (senior) at outside linebacker, Rowdy Rivera (senior) at corner, we’ve got a lot of kids that have been there, a lot of experience coming back from a team that we feel was very competitive in 3A last year. We feel we can build on that and be even more competitive. So we have a lot of team leaders right now. It’ll be good.”
One position that is unsettled is quarterback, but the Elks are in no rush to designate that slot, Baca said.
“My philosophy is we want to run the ball and pound it down people’s throat, but we also like to throw the ball and we have so much skill at receiver that we will be getting those guys the ball,” Baca said. “Another kid, Trey Merrill, (junior) he could be a quarterback, he could be a tight end and he plays defensive end for us. Skill-wise, we got speed. We have Seth Wiltbank at back; we’re looking for a quarterback. We got a few guys we’re picking from. Once we find out who that quarterback is I think we can do it all. We can throw, we can run, quarterback can run.
“We’re hoping not to just run 50 out of 60 times. We want to balance that out a little more, still be a run team but pass a little more to keep people off balance and we have the people to do it.”
Baca is projecting a deep playoff push from the Elks this season based on last season’s showing.
“If they come together as we’ve seen them come together in this camp and they keep playing hard I think this team has the potential to go very far. Just looking at last year we played some of the best teams in 3A and we toe to toe with them, beat some, lost some, but I think that experience we have and the team chemistry we’re building I think we have a chance,” Baca said.