Grace High School
Conference: 1AD1 Snake River Conference
Classification: 1A D1
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Head Coach: Brandon Sanchez
Years as Head Coach: 2nd Season
Previous Experience: Head coach at Rangely, CO
Junior High head coach in Big Piney, WY
Defensive coordinator at Star Valley, WY
Record Last Year: 5-4
Lincoln Skinner, FB/LB, 12
Jacob Aufdemorte, TB/LB, 12
Paycen Jensen, QB/OLB/DB, 11
Bryce Mathews, OL/DE, 12
Landon Wheeler, OL/DE, 12
Justin Partain, OL/DL, 11
Returning Players with Honors:
Lincoln Skinner – Conference Player of the Year
Bryce Matthews – All-Conference OL/DL
Paycen Jensen – All-Conference QB/DB
Jacob Aufdemorte – All-Conference LB
Landon Wheeler – All-Conference OL
Justin Partain – All-Conference DL
Key Players lost from last year:
Efrain Velasquez – All-Conference RB/K/P
Courtland Smith – All-Conference DE
Kip Campbell – All-Conference DB
Talon Nance – All-Conference WR
Matthew Gilbert – All-Conference OL
Incoming impact players:
Daxx Jorgensen, RB/OLB, 11
Garrett Kladis, OL/DL, 11
Jordan Collins, OL/DE
Conner Mickelson, RB/DB, 9
Gaston Smith, WR/DB, 9
Written by: Matt Harris (@IdahoSportsMatt)
The Grace Grizzlies experienced a resurgence in their program during the 2015 season. After the previous two years resulted in a combined record of 4-12, the Grizzlies made excellent strides under new head coach Brandon Sanchez en route to a 5-4 overall record and a share of the High Desert Conference championship.
For a turnaround like that to happen in the first year of a new coach leading the program is to be considered a good success. But, Grace isn’t settling for just ‘good’. They want to be excellent. And they believe that 2016 could be a true breakout season with hopes of a deep playoff run. It’s been the goal as players have progressed through workouts over the summer and Sanchez says he’s seeing the results of that work.
“Our strength is increasing as well as our overall team speed due to workouts,” he said of the improvements made through their offseason programs.
Grace brings back a wealth of talent to the field this year, led by junior quarterback Paycen Jensen. Sanchez feels that this year could be a potential breakout campaign for his signal-caller.
“We should see improvements in the passing game with Jensen, who missed the first three games of last season due to injury,” he said. “He is the fastest and most talented player on the team and one of the top talents in the state at that spot. He has some help in the backfield this season and should be well protected by the offensive line.”
Seniors Lincoln Skinner and Jacob Aufdemorte will play big minutes in the backfield for the Grizzlies this year. Skinner was named the conference Offensive Player of the Year last season and is poised for a great season.
“Our running game is our strength, particularly our inside game,” said Sanchez, now in his second season leading Grace. “We have three running backs over 200 pounds in Skinner, Aufdemorte, and junior Daxx Jorgensen. Skinner plays fullback with the other two at running back and they will share ball-carrying duties.”
The coach said that they may have been even deeper at running back this year if it were not for a well-publicized, hot-topic injury rearing its ugly head: concussions.
“We’ve lost Efrain Velasquez, who was an All-Conference running back and kick/punt return, to concussions this year,” said Sanchez. “He is a senior this year and will be our manager, but losing his speed on the outside is a killer.”
The offensive line may be the secret on offense for the Grizzlies this year, as they return good size and strength.
“Our offensive line averages 230 pounds with Justin Partain, Landon Wheeler, Bryce Matthews, Dallon Hulse, and Garrett Kladis,” Sanchez said.
Grace lost a few All-Conference players to graduation this year, including wide receiver Talon Nance and offensive lineman Matthew Gilbert. Sanchez said that he expects Kladis along with freshmen Gaston Smith and Conner Mickelson to step in and make good contributions. He feels that the Grizzlies have players in place to replace the now-graduated seniors’ production and that the foundation is set to expand on their offense, especially considering the skill players they possess on the roster.
“We need to lengthen the field out and develop a solid passing attack this year,” said Sanchez. “Jensen has too good of an arm to waste, so we will be working on putting the ball in the air a bit more. That should help out both the running and passing game.” The Grizzlies offense averaged 31.3 points per game in 2015.
Defensively, the Grizzlies return a good amount of talent and experience on the front lines. Sanchez noted several players who help provide depth to the defense.
“Our defensive strengths lie in our big, physical line and in our supporting linebacker core,” he said. “We return Aufdemorte, who is an All-Conference linebacker, in the middle. Skinner will line up next to him at the other middle linebacker spot. He may be the most improved defensive player in the offseason.”
The coach said that Jensen will spend time at outside linebacker and in the secondary, while Jorgensen will line up at the other outside linebacker position. Sanchez added that senior Bryce Matthews will be looked upon to anchor the defensive line.
“On the other side of Bryce will be a new addition to our team, senior Dallon Hulse,” he said. “He will share duties with some other up and coming players at that position. When we go to a three or four-man front, we can bring in some size with Wheeler and Partain. Kladis should also see a lot of time in the middle along with some younger players.”
Grace will be without the services of All-Conference defensive end Courtland Smith, whom Sanchez said was lost to a shoulder injury sustained at ISU football camp. All-Conference defensive back Kip Campbell is also gone, leaving a void in the secondary to be filled by young impact players. Despite the changes in personnel, the coaching staff believe that they will be able to pick up where they left off last season defensively and focus on glaring weaknesses that haunted them at times in 2015.
“We need to improve our defense, particularly in giving up big plays,” said Sanchez. “We are working on new techniques for tackling that should help us. We want to improve the secondary as well. We are young in the defensive backfield, but the pressure from the guys up front should help the younger players settle in.” Grace gave up an average of 22.7 points per contest last season.
The Grizzlies should hope that their defense is locked, loaded, and ready to go once the calendar turns to August 26th. They will face an immediate test at home as they open the season against the team they shared the conference championship with last season, the Butte County Pirates.
“Even though they’re not in our conference anymore, luckily we still play Butte for our first game. That game will be a good indicator of what direction this team is going,” said Sanchez. Butte County is looking to pass the ball more this season, meaning Grace’s secondary will see an increased workload right from the get-go.
With Butte County dropping to 1A Division-II, it means that Grace and Challis have had to find a new conference to call home. Both schools have now moved to the Snake River Conference, which now spans Districts 4, 5, and 6. The nine-team league means that each school only gets one non-conference game to tune up and prepare for the conference slate. Snake River Conference play gets underway on September 2nd, meaning that fixing issues and making adjustments from the first game against Butte County to the second game will be crucial.
Grace will host their first conference game on September 2nd against Oakley, before hitting the road to Murtaugh to take on the Red Devils on September 9th. The Grizzlies then return home for a date against Raft River, whom Sanchez believes is a state title contender. Grace then heads west for a game against Hagerman on September 23rd, before finishing out the month with a home date against Shoshone.
October football opens up with a road game at Glenns Ferry, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last season. The Grizzlies then finish the season with a game at Valley on the 14th and senior night at home against Challis.
“In my opinion, every game is a must-see game this year. We take only three teams to the playoffs so each game has extreme importance to the end of the season results,” Sanchez said. “We are looking forward to playing Oakley, Hagerman, Glenns Ferry, and Valley, as well as our non-conference game vs. Butte County. However, if I were to pick a game as the must-see game of the year, it would be the Raft River game. I think Raft will be one of the toughest teams that we will play and they beat us last year at their place so we really need to play a solid, mistake free game in order to get a win. It is also our 2016 homecoming game and it is the week that we come back from the two week spud harvest break.”
Even though there is much more travel involved, Sanchez is very happy with the opportunities presented to him and his team in a new league.
“I’m excited about moving into the Snake River Conference this year to play quality teams every single week,” he said. “We have the pieces to make a playoff run and to surprise some teams that have not seen us yet. We are big and physical and will take our style of smash-mouth football with us to play some of the best teams in 1A this year. Our team tasted a little success last year being the High Desert Conference Champions, but we were very unhappy that we exited the playoffs so quickly. We truly feel that we can compete with the best in the state if we stay healthy, physical, and stay with our game plan.”
Sanchez knows of the caliber of football played in the 1A ranks in District 4. He offered high praise to the members of his school’s new conference.
“This is an extremely strong conference. Nothing against the teams up north, but I think this is the toughest conference in the state of Idaho,” he said. “You have the returning 1A Division-I state champions, Valley, in there and they are one of the toughest teams. There are realistically six teams that will be competing for three playoff spots.”
The coach said that their old conference-mate, Challis, should be improved this season as well.
“Since we are new to the conference, it is difficult to say who from the District 4 teams will be the most improved,” said Sanchez. “Because they played with us last year and we had two opportunities to play them during the regular season, I think Challis will be an improved team this year. They have a very solid running back/linebacker in Bradshaw and also had a freshmen nose guard that dominated the JV game and played well in the varsity games. I see them to be improved this year.”
Sanchez believes that his team can make the playoffs this year and go further than they have in a long time. But he acknowledged that some factors will have to go their way to help put themselves in a position to do that – health being a key factor.
“As with most 8-man teams, staying healthy is key. With 26 players on the roster, one key player going down with an injury can really hurt a team,” he said. “If we can limit big plays on defense, improve our tackling, and put the ball in the air this year, we will be very competitive.”
Friday nights in the fall can go quickly if you let them. For Sanchez, now in his 20th season coaching athletics at the junior high or high school level, he especially enjoys the opportunity to work with the young men in the community.
“Coaching allows me to continue to be a part of the game that I love. As an elementary special education teacher, this is my only opportunity to be associated with the amazing high school kids of our community,” he said. “I cherish every moment with these guys on the field and I am so thankful of the relationships that my coaching staff has with the 26 players that we have. In all my years, this is one of the best groups of young men that I have had the pleasure of coaching. There are some really strong leaders on this team and they all want to be successful. I get a lot of enjoyment in taking raw talent and seeing what we can produce on the field. Sometimes it is magical and other times it is a disaster. This is what makes high school football and Friday nights so special.”
If the stars align and the ball bounces the right way this season, Friday nights could be extra special in Grace.