El Toro Bowl loss still weighs heavily with Matadors
Addressing his team in a huddle after its first practice Wednesday night, Arizona Western football coach Tom Minnick used the El Toro Bowl to motivate his team to show more discipline.
Even though the national championship game was almost nine months ago, he recounted in detail the penalties that dug his team into a deep hole in the first quarter, a hole they couldn't dig out of in a 55-47 loss to East Mississippi.
The fifth-year head coach even has a very specific way of referring to the gut-wrenching loss.
“That damn game,” he told his huddled team.
The Matadors kicked off the 2012 preseason with practice Wednesday, giving them 24 days to prepare for their opener Aug. 25 against Tucson Team Jordan, a semipro team. Kickoff is 7 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
They enter season ranked third in the NJCAA preseason poll, behind the same two teams as last year: EMCC and Butler. They'll have to jump both if the El Toro Bowl will again host the national championship game.
And one of the big driving forces of the quest for the 2012 title is the mistakes the team made that cost them the 2011 crown.
“It's a motivator because of that first quarter. If we wouldn't have played bad in the first quarter, they wouldn't have beat us,” Minnick said. “They were good, but we were just as good.
“If we had played the way we had all year, we would have been fine. The sophomores that are coming back realize that. We were there. We had it. We were in the national championship and we didn't show up for the first quarter. That's what hurt us.”
The players also haven't forgotten.
“It still breaks my heart we lost that game we shouldn't have lost,” said offensive lineman Nate Bartley, one of four starters back on the line this year. “We really just played stupid. A lot of penalties. Every day we talk about this year, how we're going to be national champions this year, how we're going to take it all the way and how we're not going to make any mental or physical mistakes we did last year.”
Minnick said Bartley and the line are one of the strong points — the lone newcomer is center Kawika Pieper, a transfer from Florida A&M. They'll be protecting an entirely new roster of quarterbacks, including freshman and former Yuma Catholic standout Tommy Pistone. Sophomore Cedrick McCloud, a transfer from Kent State, took a majority of the snaps Wednesday, while Kendall Barnes also saw a little bit of time.
Minnick also pointed to the wide receiver corps — “We have 10 guys there who are really good” — as a strength, and also singled out former Yuma High running back J.C. Baker as having a good summer. Baker was the backup running back last year and will compete with Lemond Buice, a transfer from Clemson.
“We just want to make sure these guys are getting better than they were in the summer,” Minnick said. “It was mostly the freshman kids and some transfers here in the summer. Most of the sophomore kids that were coming back didn't come back until Monday. But they know what's going on 'cause they were here during spring ball.”
But the sophomores have an advantage the freshmen don't: They remember last year.
“Me and my team, we're hungry for it,” said linebacker d'Vante Henry. “Getting a taste of it wasn't good enough. I think I got a bunch of players, teammates that want to get it.”