There are few givens in high school sports. But there was a time not long ago when you could all but guarantee two things at the start of the football season: Las Vegas High would win the Northeast League and play in the Sunrise Region title game.
And the Wildcats are eager to get back to being a football power.
“We stress all the time that we can make it if everybody steps up and does their job, plays their part, we can make it and be one of the top competitors in Vegas,” senior receiver Aaron Zanin-Banks said.
The Wildcats last won the Northeast in 2010, which isn’t a particularly long layoff unless you’re Las Vegas High.
The team captured nine of 10 league titles from 2001 to 2010 and played in the Sunrise title game 10 times from 2000 to 2010, winning seven region titles.
After finishing third in the Northeast last season, the Wildcats are hungry to return to prominence.
“There is no acceptance of failure, and we won’t make excuses,” coach James Thurman said. “We just weren’t as good as everybody else last year. The kids have put a lot of work in in the offseason. They’re a dedicated group, they’re a fun group to be around, and hopefully it pays off for us.”
Las Vegas, which opens its season Sept. 7 at Foothill, has plenty of experience back this season, with eight returning starters on each side of the ball. And the players say that added year of experience is showing.
“We are more mature,” senior defensive end Dakota Pikyavit said. “We take every practice very seriously compared to what we did last year.”
One reason for optimism is the return of key skill players Andrew Moreland, Trevor Swenson and Zanin-Banks. Swenson, a junior quarterback, had ups and downs in his first year as the team’s starter.
Swenson passed for 1,786 yards and 14 touchdowns but was intercepted 14 times. Thurman expects a more consistent performance this season.
“He makes improvements every day,” Thurman said. “He would get down on himself in a hurry (last season), and we’ve tried to teach him how to get mad and get over it in a hurry. He would hang onto it a little bit last year. I think he can be pretty good this year if we can keep him upright and the kids catch the ball.”
Zanin-Banks was the team’s second-leading receiver last season with 26 catches for 334 yards. He should be the go-to guy this year with the graduation of Josh Mayfield (60 catches, 686 yards).
“He’s gotten a lot better,” Zanin-Banks said of Swenson. “He’s a lot more patient, a lot better with his reads. He’s starting to go to No. 2 and No. 3 and not just force it into the first read.”
Running back Moreland returns after rushing for 1,211 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior last season.
“He’s got what you can’t teach,” Thurman said. “When he gets the ball in his hands, he can make guys miss in a hurry. He’s not exactly the fastest kid, but he’s very quick.”
The offense will be bolstered by the return of four starters on the offensive line: center Carlos Flores, guards Eduardo Guardado and Frankie Valenzuela and left tackle Mark Anthony Gacutan.
Gacutan’s twin brother, Mark Gil, is expected to take over at right tackle.
“The only way I basically get (my name) in the paper is because of our line,” Moreland said. “I think they’re the best line out here. I think we have the best in Vegas.”
Junior Jacob Littlefield was a second-team all-state pick last season and returns at inside linebacker along with senior Randy Ramirez to key the defense.
And Ramirez thinks this team has what it takes. “Ever since freshman year, we’ve all been like brothers, honestly,” he said. “Now that we’re all playing together on varsity, it’s our time. We’re ready. We’re back to the old powerhouse Vegas.”
Contact prep sports editor Damon Seiters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-380-4587. Follow @DamonSeiters on Twitter.