Fresh off a state title and down veteran players, coach molding young squad

Rebuilding a team

By James Barron
jbarron@sfnewmexican.com
Posted 8/21/19

Abreu Jr. called it “week-one stuff,” but this was day nine of preseason football practice.

If the Taos Tigers couldn’t execute a play they worked on during the first week, their …

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Fresh off a state title and down veteran players, coach molding young squad

Rebuilding a team

Posted

Abreu Jr. called it “week-one stuff,” but this was day nine of preseason football practice.

If the Taos Tigers couldn’t execute a play they worked on during the first week, their fifth-year head coach Abreu was not about to move on to the next one. The play was fairly simple: Two receivers streak 40 yards down the sidelines to the end zone and Tigers quarterback Noah Armijo’s job was to connect with one of them.

When it didn’t happen the first three times at Wednesday’s practice (Aug. 14) at Anaya Field, Abreu made it clear the team would spend the rest of practice running the same play until it was executed properly.

“We’re not moving away until the wide receiver makes a catch or the quarterback throws the ball correctly,” Abreu barked to the 40 varsity players on the field.

For the next three minutes, the process repeated itself, until Armijo on the seventh try finally connected with a receiver down the right sideline and the Tigers broke into a cheer.

As the first-team offense huddled for the next play, a lineman huffed about the long interlude.

“I’m not even running and I’m tired,” he said.

While it might seem like a “my way or the highway approach,” Abreu felt it was important to emphasize that execution was paramount, even with something Taos would have executed flawlessly – and without another thought – under normal circumstances.

Being that the Tigers are coming off their best season and first state football title, which they won 14-7 over Bloomfield in December, Abreu’s tough approach has a method to it.

“This isn’t an entitlement thing where you just show up and win,” Abreu said. “There was four years of work behind that, four years of dedication and sacrifice behind that. It wasn’t an overnight success.”

The same can be said about Taos repeating as Class 4A champion. Replacing last year’s team that was senior-heavy is a group that is a mixture of veteran upperclassmen and promising, yet inexperienced players trying to fill some very big shoes.

Perhaps no area better underscores that than the offensive and defensive lines. Senior Santiago Salazar, a 5-foot-10, 270-pound senior who was a first-team All-State performer in 2018, slides over from guard to center and will anchor an offensive line that has two sophomores in Uriel Chavez and Ryan Garcia in the guard spots.

Salazar said the offseason helped build a lot of trust with each member on the line, as well as the sophomores.

“Those guys have stepped in really, really well,” Salazar said. “When we first got back [into the weight room], we started weightlifting together and we’ve gotten really close as a group. It’s like a band of brothers – we look out for each other.”

If the offensive line jells, it could open up the Tigers’ offense.

And it will have a different look compared to last year’s power running component led by graduates Jonathan Garcia and Brian Moraga. The pair keyed a rushing attack that averaged 272 yards per game and combined for 2,360 yards. Abreu expects several players do their part in establishing the ground game, led by senior Angel Limas. It’s a significant shift for Limas, who was the team’s leading receiver in 2018 with 521 yards and five touchdowns.

“I’m up for the challenge,” Limas said. “I want to fill Jonathan’s spot. It feels good that I should be back there.”

Limas won’t be absent from the passing game, which should get a big boost with the presence of 6-foot-5 senior Noah Armijo and his strong arm. Armijo has been the backup quarterback the past two seasons and it was his learning experience filling in for starter Jude Suazo two years ago that keyed the maturation process for him.

He came into a district game against St. Michael’s with the Tigers leading 14-6, but his inexperience and lack of preparation showed as the Horsemen scored 28 points in the third quarter that keyed their 41-21 win and helped them win the 2-4A (now 2-3A) title.

“I learned that you got to pay attention a lot more in practice,” Armijo said. “Every rep is very real and you can get thrown in there at any time. As you saw there against St. Michael’s, it wasn’t pretty.”

Still, Armijo’s experience is a cautionary tale for younger, inexperienced players.

Abreu added that he and the coaching staff focused more on fundamentals in the offseason in order to get those players prepared. It also presented a different challenge for Abreu, who admitted he was spoiled as a coach with the veteran group he had for the previous three seasons.

“Not that I forget where I came from with the fundamentals, but now, let’s get back to it again,” Abreu said with a smile. “Let’s talk about that first step in the 24-Iso [play], talk about the second step of the 28-Toss. Where are our eyes at? Where are our hands, eyes and feet at?

“I got spoiled last year because they already knew where hands, eyes and feet were, and I just had to get them from point A to point B. Now, it’s hands, eyes and feet and get them from point A to point B.”

If Abreu can get the Tigers from point A (the basics) to point B (the nuances), it could spell out another good year – maybe one that picks up where last year’s championship team left off.

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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