A half hour in to practice on Thursday evening, Thunder Mountain High School head football coach Randy Quinto works out his receivers.
Under blue skies and unusually warm temperatures for high school football season, which officially began a week before, Quinto stands outside of a small rectangle of violet training cones.
“Fire out, fire out, faster,” Quinto says as 14 Falcons take turns running the drill. His receivers form a line and take off eight feet from the catch zone, designated by the cones. Quinto tosses the football at their shins, then a few feet above their helmets and finally a step behind them.
Standing first in the line, demonstrating the most fundamentally-sound catches is senior Jacob Tapia.
Tapia, one of three returning all-state Falcons on the team from last season, says the team is like a brotherhood.
“Without football, I probably wouldn’t be talking to these guys,” Tapia said, referring to his other two all-state teammates Roy Tupou and Ivan Williams.
TMHS’ cohesiveness has helped the program improve every year since Quinto became head coach in 2015. Two years ago the team went 4-5 and made the playoffs for the first time in program history. Last year, they made it back to the playoffs, this time as the No. 1 seed by taking the Southeast Conference, but were quickly booted out once there. They fell to Palmer 28-26 after turning the ball over with three minutes left in the game on a fourth-and-2 play.
“Great effort by the boys,” Quinto said of the game. “This senior group, my juniors last year, they sat in that locker room still with their gear on and said, ‘Coach, this isn’t going to happen again.’ So they have a mission — they have a mission to not only to get to the state title but it to knock off Soldotna.”
The Soldotna Stars have won the last five medium school football titles. Not only that, they have won a mind-boggling 49 straight games.
This season, the Falcons won’t face the Stars like they have in past seasons. But to go very far in the playoffs, TMHS will have to take down the Stars sooner or later.
“We made the playoffs two years in a row now, so now hopefully we can go further in the playoffs,” Williams said.
The Stars eliminated TMHS from the 2015 postseason with a 49-13 win at Dimond High School.
“I mean, no team’s beaten them yet,” Tupou said. “Why can’t we be that team to beat them? So, we just have to keep working hard. We have to go 100 percent every day.”
“You have to go in with that mentality that you’re going to beat them, because if you don’t then you already lost. There’s no point in showing up,” he added.
There will be plenty of tests for TMHS before a potential matchup with Soldotna. First up is South Anchorage on Aug. 12. Quinto said one of the team goals this year is to defeat a 4A (large schools) team. The first game of the season will be their only opportunity to do that.
The Falcons will miss the play of projected starting quarterback Owen Mendoza against the Wolverines. Last year’s starting quarterback Cale Jenkins graduated in the spring. Mendoza’s football season was put on hold as his American Legion baseball season went a week longer than normal.
Besides Jenkins, other graduates from the team include wide receivers Riley Olsen, Garth Tupou and tight end Mahina Toutaiolepo.
TMHS will play host to Kodiak, Juneau-Douglas High School and Ketchikan this season at Falcon stadium.
2017 Season Schedule
Aug. 12 @South Anchorage 3 p.m.
Aug. 18 Kodiak, 7 p.m.
Aug. 25 Bye
Sept. 1 Juneau-Douglas, 7 p.m.
Sept. 8 @Ketchikan, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 @North Pole, 7 p.m.
Sept. 22 Ketchikan, 7 p.m.
Sept. 29 @Juneau-Douglas, 7 p.m.
• Contact sports reporter Nolin Ainsworth at 523-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org.