Saguaro Sabercats working toward eighth title in 10 years

When the Saguaro High School football team begins its 2015 season, it will have a target on its back. This target is one of the many gifts that come with being the defending state champion.

For the Sabercats, that target might as well be a tattoo.

Saguaro High School football team. (Photo by Joe McInerney)

Saguaro High School football team. (Photo by Joe McInerney)

Saguaro will be looking for its eighth title in 10 years when they take the field Aug. 21.

“Ever since I’ve been here, that’s the goal every year,” Saguaro head coach Jason Mohns said in a June 17 phone interview. “There’s never been any other goal to top the list besides win the state championship. That’s our expectation, that’s what we go to work for every day.”

The Sabercats finished their 2014 season 14-0, and Division III State Champions. They scored an average of 51 points per game, while only allowing 13 points per game.

Two big pieces of last year’s state championship run graduated, and the Sabercats have to look for new players to step up.

Replacing a Dynamic Duo

The Sabercats will have to make up for over 4,000 yards of offense supplied by two of last year’s seniors.

Christian Kirk, now a wide receiver at Texas A&M University, led the Sabercats in rushing and was second in receiving during last year’s state championship run. Kirk scored 19.7 points per game, just over three touchdowns per contest. He caught 61 balls for 1,187 yards and 17 touchdowns and had 159 carries for 1,692 yards and 25 touchdowns. Kirk finished the season with a team-high 42 touchdowns.

(Photo by Joe McInerney)

(Photo by Joe McInerney)

Kam’ron Johnson, now a running back at Northern Arizona University, rushed for 1,291 yards on 104 carries and added 21 touchdowns on the ground.

Coach Mohns says the mentality for the Sabercats is “next guy’s up.”

“We’ve got a lot of young talent in this program,” Coach Mohns said. “I think we have nine kids currently between our 2016 and 2017 classes that have Division I college scholarship offers.”

Coach Mohns says a player like Kirk is irreplaceable because of the way he played the game, but he says younger players are ready to step in.

“We feel like we have a lot of players that are going to make a name for themselves this next year,” Coach Mohns said.

Karé Lyles, Saguaro’s senior quarterback, hopes to bring the offense back even better.

“Losing two guys like that obviously takes off of your offense a little bit,” Lyles said. “I feel like we’re rebuilding our offense even better. It’s not like we’re dropping off a ton.”

Returning Talent

In 2014, Lyles threw 40 touchdowns and only five interceptions. He completed 71 percent of his throws and threw for 3,420 yards.

He says his preparation should lead him to another successful season.

“I’m going to continue to work hard and get better every single day,” Lyles said. “The more you prepare for the season, the better the productivity you get out of it. I feel like I’m going to have a better year than last year.”

Lyles is entering is senior year with a big decision already out of the way- he has committed to the University of Wisconsin.

“The reason why I chose Wisconsin is pretty much because it felt like home,” Lyles said. “The visit was awesome, the coaches are great. I love (head) coach (Paul) Chryst, he’s a quarterback-minded coach.”

Lyles says making his decision early will allow him to concentrate more on the task that lies ahead- repeating as state champions.

“Getting that monkey off your back lets you focus more on the team than the recruiting process,” Lyles said. “I feel like I’m a lot more focused on making this team better.”

Lyles is not the only offensive weapon returning for the Sabercats. Senior wide receiver Byron Murphy led the Sabercats last season with 65 receptions for 1,348 yards. Murphy added six interceptions too.

Lyles says some of the other skill positions on offense may lack prior playing time, but the experience of the big men should help the offense.

“We’re inexperienced in a lot of places but we’re coming back with four out of the five starting linemen from last year,” Lyles said. “I feel like we’re going to be great again.”

One of those returning linemen is center Michael Weinstein, who has offers from Michigan State University, the University of Nebraska, the University of Oregon, Stanford University and the University of Utah, according to 247sports.com.

The offense was a key to the Sabercats’ success, but the defense should not be ignored. It was led by seniors Skylar Seminara (86 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss) and Zach Harbaugh (81 tackles, 12.5 TFL.)

Two key players returning on the defensive side of the ball are Murphy and junior linebacker Brandt Casey, who recorded 81 tackles, 11 TFL, four sacks, and three forced fumbles last season as a sophomore.

Casey says he does not feel any pressure about following up his impressive sophomore season.

“I’ve been around it long enough to know what to do and when to lead, and when the right time is for everything,” Casey said in a June 17 phone interview. “I was young, but I also have experience in it.”

This year, Casey says he will try to lead the young players on defense.

“I love defense and leading my defense because I’m one of the returning players,” Casey said. “We have a lot of young dudes, so I’ll just lead them like I’ve been doing.”

Despite losing some talented seniors, Casey says the defense should be just as stout in 2015.

“I think we have just as much talent, maybe even better than we had last year,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of younger dudes, not a lot of them have varsity experience, it just comes with reps. Over time, I’m pretty sure we will be just as good as we were last year, if not even better.”

Family matters

The Sabercats have a chance to complete a remarkable decade of high school football, and they know it will take hard work.

Lyles says he has learned how to lead from the former players who led him.

“It’s pretty much about getting better everyday,” Lyles said. “I’ve been learning from our guys, the seniors from last year, how they led this program and how they led us. We’ve got a great group of guys and we’re building a team that feels like family.”

Lyles says the family aspect of the team is important at Saguaro.

“That’s our thing, that’s our motto- it’s always family,” Lyles said. “I feel like our guys are a really tight group. That’s pretty much the recipe for success: just having a tight group, everybody being there for each other.”

Casey says embracing the target on their back will lead the Sabercats to success.

“We just need to play relentlessly and wreak havoc every down, like we’ve been doing,” Casey said. “We just need to keep it going, knowing that we have a chip on your shoulder and a target on our back every day. If we just come to work, everything will fall into place after that.”

Scottsdale Independent Sports Correspondent Justin Maskulinski can be contacted at jmaskulinski@newszap.com. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/Maskulinski.

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