For a full look at practice at El Paso Bel Air, click here.
It was a story of so close, yet so far for El Paso Bel Air in 2016. Playing in a competitive District 2-5A, the Highlanders finished 4-4 in district play (4-6 overall) and lost those four district games by a combined 23 points, all to playoff teams. It proved to be a tough pill to swallow for a team that also dealt with injuries late in the year.
“We just have to finish games and staying healthy will definitely be a factor,” said Bel Air quarterback Isaac Ybarra, “Having our starters play all 10 games is going to be really important.”
Ybarra is one of seven returning starters from an offense that started finding its stride midway through the season, averaging 46 points per game over their last five games of 2016. It was nearly double their average from the first half of the year and head coach Tony Cervantes is excited about what he has in his offensive arsenal.
“We have two great receivers in John Diaz and Rudy Quezada and Isaac to get them the ball,” Cervantes said of his offense, “If we can find someone to help us balance our attack, I think we’ll be really solid.”
Cervantes enters his fifth year with the Highlanders and had made the postseason the previous two seasons after a prior playoff drought of 16 seasons. He’s excited to have everyone back healthy, particulary his senior quarterback who missed time with injuries last season.
“He is always composed,” Cervantes said of Ybarra, “He’s an extension of the coaches on the field and the kids really look up to him. He’s a good athlete for us.”
While the excitement is found on offense, Cervantes also has good vibes on the defensive side of the ball. Rick Molina moves over to defensive coordinator and one returning starter is already sensing a change.
“Our team looks and feels a lot more physical and intense from where were at last year,” said senior linebacker Patrick Hernandez, “We’re just a lot more confident in ourselves and Coach Molina has been working us to the max.”
Cervantes, a former defensive coordinator himself, has also seen the strides that the defense has made from last year.
“Coach Molina is also our strength coordinator and he’s really picked up the intensity at practice and that’s what I like to see,” Cervantes said of his defense, “You have to have that on defense. They’re flying around and their keys, reads and ability to get to the football have all really improved.”
The Highlanders hope that they can bring all the pieces together to earn another postseason spot. After facing multiple injuries and close losses, the team believes they are better suited to handle the challenge this season.
“I’ve seen growth on both sides of the ball. We’re definitely a couple of steps ahead of where we were last year.”
“Our team looks and feels a lot more physical and intense and from where were at last year,” Hernandez said, “We’re just a lot more confident in ourselves.”
The road will not be easy as they face district title contenders in El Paso in Chapin (1-5A) and rival Eastwood (1-6A) before opening District 2-5A play with defending champion Canutillo and playoff team in Parkland in their first four games.
“Our tough non-district schedule does prepare us for what’s coming,” Cervantes said, “If we can come out of those games improving each week, we’ll be ready for what comes up in district play. And if we can finish and get some of those close games in crunch time, I think that will make a big difference.”
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