Despite having just 14 football players,
scrappy Denair varsity ready for season to kick off

There is no avoiding the obvious when it comes to the Denair High varsity football team. In a sport that requires 11 players at a time on offense, defense or special teams, Denair has 14 players on its roster. Total. Ninth-year head coach Anthony Armas has more assistant coaches next to him on the sideline than extra players.

It’s far from what any team would wish for, but it’s a familiar spot for the Coyotes. In 2016, they began with 16 healthy players, but finished a couple of games with just 12 because of injuries.

“We’ve done it before. It’s not ideal, but this is what we’ve got,” acknowledged Armas, whose team will begin its 2023 season Saturday night at home against Big Valley Christian of Modesto. Kickoff is at 7:15 p.m. at Jack Lytton Stadium.

Armas attributes the low numbers this season, in part, to the lingering effects of COVID. The members of this year’s senior class were freshmen when the pandemic struck. Many of them did not play football then and never took up the sport after the restrictions were lifted. Armas thinks that explains why there are only two seniors – Landon Borges and Jonathan Coronel – on this year’s roster. They are joined by 10 juniors and two sophomores.

“Our junior class is about normal, but this senior group hurt us,” Armas acknowledged. “After this, our numbers will be fine. Our lower levels are good, probably the best we’ve ever had.”

The junior varsity roster includes 35 freshmen and sophomores, backing up Armas’ confidence about the future.

But other than assuring the varsity get reps in at joint practices, all those younger bodies won’t help Denair this year.

“We have some talented kids, but no depth across the board. If anyone goes down, it’ll be tough,” admitted Armas, who doesn’t try to sugarcoat the obvious to his players. “We keep telling them, ‘The calvary’s not coming. This is it.’ ”

Obviously, with the low numbers, every Denair player is expected to go both ways. Many of the players never come off the field during the game.

Borges, the quarterback, also plays safety. Junior center Eduardo Zacarias also is a defensive lineman. Junior Jesse Ruelas will start at fullback and outside linebacker. Sophomore Even Coronel will be on the offensive line and also play linebacker. Sophomore Ernesto Silva plays tight end and defensive line.

Armas said such a small roster influences how he coaches during the game.

“Sometimes, I’ll call timeout just to give them a break,” he said of his players. “I tell them to let me know if they’re cramping up.”

Armas appreciates the attitude the players have, despite the thin roster.

“It would be real easy with the numbers to fold up and shut down, to feel sorry for themselves,” he said. “They take it as a challenge. Especially this junior class. They’re very tight. Still, you have to kind of hope we get a little lucky. That’s every year with football. You hope you don’t get bitten by the injury bug.”

The season opener this week was moved to Saturday because of a field trip Big Valley is taking Friday. What that sets up is a full day of football on Saturday between the Denair and Big Valley programs – from the youth level all the way through the varsity. The youngest kids start at 9 a.m., with other games to follow at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., the JVs at 5 p.m. and the varsity at 7:15 p.m.

After Big Valley, the Coyotes will have a week off before traveling to Riverbank on Sept. 1. They were supposed to host Bret Harte of Angels Camp on Sept. 8 for varsity and JV games, but because Bret Harte doesn’t have a varsity team this year, the freshmen, sophomores and juniors from each school will meet in what will be considered a JV game.

Denair begins its Southern League schedule on Sept. 15 at home against Ripon Christian.

Last year, the Coyotes finished 2-8 overall and 1-6 in league play – the lone SL victory coming in the final game of the season at Waterford.

Armas said it’s hard to set firm goals, given the size of the roster and what could happen if too many players get hurt.

“It’s really week to week,” he explained. “Our goal this week being the first game is to execute, minimize mistakes, minimize penalties and turnovers, make sure we get lined up right. We could say we want to make the playoffs, but that’s putting the cart ahead of the horse. We just need to stabilize things for now. If we get to the final weeks of the season and the playoffs are within reach, we can adjust then.”

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