Owls look to take flight in Ross Crow’s 2nd year

Nick Thyfault, middle linebacker for the Agua Fria High School Owls, takes part in blocking drills before the first game. (West Valley View photo by Ray Thomas)

By Casey Pritchard 

Coach Ross Crow had a rough first season with Agua Fria in 2016. The Owls went 2-8, failing to make the state playoffs for the third year in a row.

Moving forward in his second campaign, Crow sees a few things that the team could improve upon to find success.

“The comfort level of the kids with the coaching staff is a huge factor, and our knowledge of kind of what buttons to push with each kid in order to get the most out of them,” Crow said. “That familiarity with each other and the relationships, that’s kind of the biggest thing, I think.”

Agua Fria’s wins last season came against Phoenix Washington and Phoenix Barry Goldwater. The Owls were just 1-4 in region play.

“We improved game by game,” Crow said. “That kind of developed and evolved, even though the record didn’t necessarily show it.”

Many of the Owls’ players were seniors, but the experience level didn’t match.

“As juniors, they didn’t play a ton behind the seniors that graduated the year previous,” Crow said.

Even though Agua Fria was senior heavy, several underclassmen had the chance to see the field, which should help this year.

“Last year, we started a freshman on the offensive line, a sophomore wide receiver and defensive back, and our quarterback played five games as a junior,” Crow said.

That was Nathanial Verduzco, who finished the year 52 of 116 for 639 yards and four touchdowns. Despite that experience, he still has to compete for the starting job this year.

“That’s the good thing, we’ve got a handful of guys at each position group that are in direct competitions for their positions, and it probably won’t be settled until game one,” Crow said. “The experience obviously doesn’t hurt his chances to win the job, but I’m really pleased with the guys we have competing, not only for quarterback, but running back, offensive line. We’ve got some real position competitions going on right now.”

Zachary Vierhout is competing with Verduzco for the starting quarterback position. Vierhout played JV last year, and is also a good wide receiver, Crow said.

At running back, Eriyon Ward and Nicholas Murguia are battling for the starting nod. Crow said he plans on playing both of them because, with different personnel groups, the Owls will use either one or two backs in the backfield.

“None of them are the bruising, punishing running-back type, but they’re all quick, fast and elusive; that’s really good,” Crow said. “We’ve definitely upgraded this year’s team in terms of athleticism.”

Ward played JV last year, while Murguia was on the freshman team.

“Our freshman team was pretty talented, so we’ve got a number of sophomores that are going to play some key roles for us this year,” Crow said.

One of those is offensive lineman Carson Kennedy. He moved from the freshman team to varsity last year and started five games at left tackle. This year, he was named a captain by his teammates.

“He’s kind of the leader of the O-line and we can plug him into any of the five positions,” Crow said. “He kind of directs the troops out there, he can tell guys who to block and where to go. That’s a good thing to have. He’s got all of the physical tools, but he’s super smart, a good student, knows the game really well. I haven’t seen this much out of a sophomore, so it’s pretty unique.”

Strategically, Agua Fria was pretty balanced in its offensive attack last year. The Owls rushed for 1,310 yards and passed for 1,047. Crow said he will take whatever opponents give him.

“I don’t have any preference in terms of we want to pass X number of plays, or we want to run X number of plays, we do what works,” Crow said.

“If the passing game is working one particular game, and the running game is working another game, we’ll take what they give us. We want to be balanced and unpredictable to the defense, all those things, but we also want to be successful. Whatever gives us the best chance of success, we’ll take it.”

Defensively, the Owls have an intense group. At times, Crow has had to rein them in a bit to limit the amount of contact at practice.

“We’ll change the tempo from a full-speed tackle live drill, to more of a thud-type drill where guys aren’t going to the ground, because we don’t want to kill our teammates. We don’t want to beat our teammates up,” Crow said.

“The guys, defensively, have just been getting after it. All 11 guys are getting to the football, and getting to it in a bad mood. It’s nice because in the past we’ve had to encourage them to ramp up the physicality, and ramp up the enthusiasm and intensity. Now, we’ve got to hold them back a little bit. So, we’re definitely nastier this year. This is an intense game.”

Following a losing season, Crow and the Owls talked goals while at summer camp at Northern Arizona University. He was pleased with the conversations the athletes had when setting goals, he said.

“The team has very lofty expectations for themselves, and we do as well as coaches,” Crow said.

“We feel we’re going to be much improved this year, but I don’t think we’re necessarily too concerned with putting a number on wins and losses. We’re just concerned with lining up every Friday and playing whoever is in front of us, and competing and giving our best effort every single night, and whatever happens at the end of the night, happens.”

Agua Fria opens the season at 7 p.m. Friday, August 18, hosting Gilbert Campo Verde. The Owls were shut out by Campo Verde 43-0 last year.

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