Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Las Vegas Sun editors Ray Brewer and Case Keefer go through every division and team in the 4A and 3A high school football classifications in their annual season-opening podcast.
Only two teams have ever won the Class 3A Sunrise since the league was implemented six years ago — Virgin Valley and Moapa Valley.
They’re also appropriately the only two teams that remained in the Sunrise after the latest realignment shake-up this offseason. The Bulldogs are back-to-back defending champions, while the Pirates captured the crown in each of the league’s first four years.
That pedigree guarantees that any discussion on the 3A Sunrise starts with the archrivals, as everyone points towards their annual “Hammer Game” showdown scheduled for the regular-season finale on Oct. 19 as the game that will determine the division.
Well, everyone except for the teams themselves — ever-so-concerned with not looking ahead.
“We’ll worry about Moapa at the end of the year,” new Virgin Valley coach Matthew Wood said defiantly.
Wood, who was previously an assistant with the Bulldogs, steps into a role that comes with high expectations. Virgin Valley reached the state semifinals last season, a year after making the quarterfinals.
To continue the one-step-further pattern and corral a state championship berth, the Bulldogs will need new stars to emerge. They lost almost all of the skill players from last year’s team, including 3A Player of the Year Jayden Perkins.
Virgin Valley does have the majority of its offensive line back, however, and Woods is counting on experienced blockers like Jeremy Perkins and Taua Fiso helping instill an identity into the rest of the team.
“We’re not very big so we better be tough, we better be in good shape,” Woods said. “It’s just an all-in concept where we’re buying into what we’re working on.”
Brent Lewis has preached a similar message of commitment throughout his 17-year tenure as Moapa Valley coach. Lewis has delivered three state championships to Overton, Nev. — the latest coming in 2014 — with a strong opportunity to add a fourth this season.
Unlike Virgin Valley, Moapa Valley returns almost everyone from the top of last year’s statistics sheet. That includes senior quarterback Luke Bennett, who seized the job at the end of last season, and top target Derek Reese, a senior tight end.
Two of the Pirates’ top three leading rushers are also back in junior Hayden Redd and senior Braeden St. John.
“We’ve been quite young the last couple years so we’ve got high expectations for the guys coming back,” Lewis said.
New divisional opponent Sunrise Mountain ended Moapa Valley’s season last year, holding for a 30-28 upset on the road in the first round of the playoffs. It remains to be seen if the Miners can maintain last year’s breakthrough under new coach Kevin McNulty, who arrives to town tasked with piecing together a roster that will undergo major turnover.
Boulder City is a more familiar foe to Moapa Valley and Virgin Valley, as the Eagles were previously in the 3A Sunrise before taking a leave of absence last year to play an independent schedule.
“Going into the independent season was just to get our numbers back up, and that helped,” Boulder City coach Chris Morelli said. “We have outstanding numbers right now. This summer was probably the best summer we’ve had in the past eight years I’ve been with the program.”
Boulder City plans to bruise opponents with their ground game, which feature a pair of 6-foot, 195-pound running backs in Jimmy Dunagan and Thorsten Balmer.
Much like Boulder City, Rancho has struggled attracting enough players to field a competitive team in recent years. Coach Gary Maki is determined to change the culture, however, and sees some improvement already in between his first and second seasons.
“Most coaches at Rancho are one-and-done so I think we’re making progress in that respect,” he said. “Numbers could be better, but we have a nice nucleus that we’re working with and we’re doing a lot better than last year.”
Rancho went 0-9 last season, but that was on the upper level. Moving to the more fitting 3A classification has the Rams setting a goal to reach the playoffs, and workhorse senior running back Alex Bramasco could lead them there.
The 3A Sunrise standings could shape up in a number of different ways, but history says it will take a monumental effort to oust Virgin Valley and/or Moapa Valley on top. The two schools have built the types of programs other aspire to reach.
“It’s definitely something we know we need to keep going,” Reese said. “We need to keep the program going strong. That’s our job and we need to make it so the little kids that look up to us come in and they want to roll too.”
Last Year’s Finish: Virgin Valley, Moapa Valley, Chaparral, Del Sol (Chaparral and Del Sol switched leagues in realignment, while Boulder City, Rancho and Sunrise Mountain joined the Sunrise.)
Projected 2018 finish: Moapa Valley, Virgin Valley, Sunrise Mountain, Boulder City, Rancho
Boulder City: Running back/linebacker Jimmy Dunnagan, running back/linebacker Thorsten Balmer, offensive/defensive lineman Michael Kaposta
Moapa Valley: Quarterback Luke Bennett, tight end/linebacker Derek Reese, running back/defensive back Hayden Redd
Rancho: Running back/defensive back Alex Bramasco, running back/linebacker Ethan Oberson, offensive/defensive lineman Tristan Garza
Sunrise Mountain: Wide receiver Xavier Kyles, Running back Anthony Cole-Green, defensive end Kemani Wilks
Virgin Valley: Offensive/defensive lineman Jeremy Perkins, offensive/defensive lineman Taua Fiso, running back/linebacker Wyatt Delano
Offensive MVP: Moapa Valley’s Redd
Defensive MVP: Virgin Valley’s Fiso
Coach of the Year: Moapa Valley’s Lewis
Game of the Year: Moapa Valley 28, Virgin Valley 20