Las Vegas Wildcats football ready to reload

Las Vegas High’s football team has a new coach, seven new offensive starters and nine new defensive starters.

But no one uttered the word "rebuilding" at a recent Wildcats practice. As long as quarterback Hasaan Henderson and running back Farrell Victor are in the backfield, why would they?

"We don’t have a lot of seniors, but the ones we do have are good players," new coach James Thurman said.

Good could be an understatement.

With a 6-foot-4-inch frame, a strong arm and basketball athleticism, Henderson is a rare sight in the pocket.

The senior passed for 2,137 yards and 26 touchdowns, and rushed for 356 yards and another seven scores last season, and he vows to be even better at the controls of the Wildcats’ spread offense this season.

"I think I’ve gotten a lot better at my decision making and my time with the clock, evaluating time," Henderson said. "I’ve gotten better at controlling the game, and being more of a leader."

Henderson will be handing off to the elusive Victor, who ran for 1,383 yards and 14 TDs as a junior last season.

The Wildcats also return seniors Tony Verdugo and Fabian Lechuga to anchor their offensive line.

"We’re putting in a few things different, but it’s pretty much the same (offensive) stuff," said Verdugo, a center and nose guard. "I have a feeling we’re going to be good this year."

Thurman, a longtime defensive line assistant at Las Vegas, took over for Chris Faircloth, who resigned in January after going 78-17 over seven seasons, with Class 4A state titles in 2005 and 2006.

Senior linebacker and left tackle Kaveo Walker said Thurman’s familiarity with the program will be beneficial.

"It’s the same stuff. The defense we’re running right now is pretty similar to one of the formations we ran last year," Walker said. "We’re pretty sound."

Las Vegas also has a rare talent in junior kicker Jay Mattox, who earned the nickname "Auto-Mattox" after he made 10 of 13 field goals last year.

"Hopefully he’s going to be a big weapon for us," Thurman said. "He’s hitting 40-yarders if there’s no wind, easy."

Las Vegas won six straight Sunrise Region titles, from 2003 to 2008, before losing to Foothill in the 2009 quarterfinals and to Liberty in last year’s region final.

That has Henderson driven to return the Wildcats to postseason glory.

"It’s kind of hard to believe it’s gone by so fast," Henderson said. "I’ve been here with my team for four years on varsity. Hopefully we get to state this year."

Las Vegas will get a glimpse of its many new faces on both sides of the ball when it opens against visiting Snow Canyon (Utah) at 7 p.m. Friday.

SOUTHEAST LEAGUE

Playing on the offensive line at Liberty might be different from other high school football programs.

It’s not just about being big or knowing how to block. It’s a frame of mind.

"Our coach preaches that it starts in the trenches and it ends in the trenches," senior left guard P.J. Taeao said. "We’re the kind of linemen who are going to hit you in the mouth until the other line gives up."

The 6-foot-3-inch, 330-pound Taeao might be the perfect spokesman for the Patriots, who rode dominant line play and a smash-mouth running game to last year’s Sunrise Region title.

"We try to have a blue-collar mentality of being physical from whistle to whistle, and we have a bunch of kids who thrive on that and love contact," said Liberty coach Rich Muraco, also the school’s wrestling coach. "They seek the contact; they don’t shy away from that."

Liberty rolled up 3,321 yards and 45 TDs on the ground last season, and the rushing attack will be the Patriots’ foundation again this year.

Many of the carries will go to junior Niko Kapeli, who ran for a team-high 1,335 yards and 10 TDs last year. His lead blocker is his brother, senior fullback Jordan Kapeli.

Muraco called Jordan Kapeli a "devastating blocker." It’s a role tailor made for last year’s Class 4A state shot put champion.

"That’s the greatest feeling," Jordan Kapeli said of blocking for his brother. "Not a lot of people get that chance."

Muraco said Liberty has improved at the skill positions from last season. That starts with junior quarterback Kai Nacua, who passed for nine TDs and ran for 11 last year.

"(Nacua) is bigger, more physical, makes better reads, and he’s more comfortable," Muraco said. "They have faith he’s going to be able to lead them down in a two-minute situation to win a game, and I have faith in him, too."

Liberty opens against visiting Arbor View at 7 p.m. Friday.

Contact reporter Tristan Aird at taird@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203.

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