Football out here doesn’t look like football anywhere else.
On Tuesday, the Denair High Coyotes gathered on a lot behind the school, where the tall grass threatened to swallow them whole.
Players, some dressed in swim trunks, combed their way slowly through the tall grass, towing tackling dummies from a storage shed 100 yards away. Sweat formed before practice had even begun.
In this age of technology, turf and well-stocked rosters, Denair cuts a different path, one defined by a dangerously small roster, remarkably big victories and odds as long as the grass itself.
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There are no reserves coming. There’s no one coming to save you guys. We’re all we have and you have to get used to that. It’s a mindset: If you tap out, you’d better mean it.
Anthony Armas, Denair High football coach
The Coyotes began the season with 16 players, then needed only 12 to pummel Le Grand, a proud former Sac-Joaquin Section champion, 50-0. Last week, Denair took the field for a pivotal Southern League showdown against Ripon Christian with 14 players.
They defeated the reigning Division VI semifinalists, 32-0, a score that stunned many.
Just not the Coyotes (4-2, 2-1).
“We’ve got the right 14 players,” said Anthony Armas, a second-year coach who embraces “Iron Man” football. Like most of his players, Armas was a two-way player at Denair, as were all of his coaches.
“There are no reserves coming. There’s no one coming to save you guys,” he said. “We’re all we have and you have to get used to that. It’s a mindset: If you tap out, you’d better mean it. If you’re a little tired, we got to keep going.”
With just two winning seasons in the past 12 years, the Coyotes are a program born from the tall grass. Nothing comes easy.
Armas is the fourth head coach in the last five years. Three years ago, Denair was 0-10 … with 32 players. Its last playoff appearance was in 2010 and the program has never won a section title, though it’s been to the finals twice (1998, 2006).
Long an afterthought in the Stanislaus District, Denair’s “Mighty 14,” as they’ve been dubbed by local media, find themselves in the hunt for a Southern League title and Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth.
“I’m expecting a Southern League title,” said senior Brenden Curnow, who had two of Denair’s seven interceptions against Ripon Christian, returning one 75 yards for a touchdown. “We push each other so much. We’ve come up from Denair youth football. That’s what makes us special. We’re a family. We’re like brothers. I had faith in my team to come out and perform this year.”
The Coyotes trail only defending league champion Orestimba (5-1, 3-0) and Delhi (6-0, 3-0), one of four unbeaten teams left in the district, in the Southern League standings. Denair steps into the ring with both the next two weeks, beginning with Orestimba in Newman on Friday.
“We’re not here to mess around. We mean business when we come into a game. We want to shut out the doubters and the haters,” said linebacker-fullback Justin Steeley, who sports a rock-star mohawk above his square jaw. “We’re a family. We love each other like brothers and we take that to the field every day.”
The Denair football team began the season with 16 players and started a 50-0 victory over Le Grand with 13. On the opening kickoff, backup tight end Jarred Carbajal dislocated his left shoulder. The coaches had 30 seconds to “teach” Justin Gomes to play tight end before the first offensive snap.
Orestimba has won 10 consecutive league games and follows the lead of sack master Toby Silva and quarterback Josh Barron, who accounted for five touchdowns in last week’s win at Le Grand. Silva leads the section with 12 sacks, including eight in his last two games.
Denair isn’t intimidated. Armas’ boys love a good challenge.
There is a strength that comes from being so small, he said. The coaching staff doesn’t have to worry about camaraderie or implementing a game plan, and the team benefits from one-on-one instruction and extra reps in practice. Conditioning and execution have shown up on the final scoreboard the last two weeks. Denair pulled away from Ripon Christian in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Knights 19-0 over the final 12 minutes.
Steeley rushed for two touchdowns and recorded an interception, while Chase Pritt joined Curnow with two interceptions and a pick-six as the Coyotes delivered a devastating blow to the Knights’ postseason hopes.
“We needed to prove to ourselves that we could beat a team like that. You beat Ripon Christian, it’s a big deal,” Armas said. “It proved to our kids that if we execute – and hands down that was our best game in terms of execution – if we execute we can beat just about anybody.”
Here’s the rub, though: Denair’s magical season can unravel with just one injury. Golden Sierra of the Sierra Delta League had to forfeit its game with El Dorado on Sept. 16 because it had just 12 players available.
Armas understands that is a bridge his program may have to cross. Until then, this small pack of Coyotes, thirsting for more and aware of the odds, will continue to hunt big game in the tall grass.
“If we execute and stay healthy, I like our chances,” Armas said. “If we have two guys go down, it’s going to get really interesting, fast.”