Alex Gianoli Sunrise Mountain football

Senior quarterback Alex Gianoli looks to throw at Sunrise Mountain football practice.

The story is the same as usual for Sunrise Mountain football this season. The Mustangs are coming off a winning season in which they made the playoffs — as they have since coach Steve Decker took the program over in 2016 — and are rebuilt to try to do it again in 2019.

This rendition of Sunrise football is sprinkled with a balance of talent throughout the lineup, with plenty of younger players looking to make contributions as starters.

The Mustangs, due to both young talent and injury, played nine sophomores on defense in a 2018 game against region rival Ironwood, and a few on offense, too. That class, as upcoming juniors, gives Decker a unique set of assets that are both young enough to keep improving, but already experienced at the highest high school level.

“That growth and getting thrown into the fire really helped them for the rest of the season, and that’s going to be big for us now,” Decker said.

Matt Johnson, a senior lineman, said with a young core, the seniors have taken it upon themselves to act as leaders and string along the underclassmen they will be depending on, as well.

“All during the offseason we’ve been mentoring them, and we’ve seen the group of young guys get so much better. It’s really cool to see,” Johnson said.

Senior quarterback Alex Gianoli, who moves to the other side of the ball after playing safety last season, has been impressed with the work ethic of the entire group.

He claims these Mustangs are closer and have more of a unified team spirit than any season he has been a part of in his football career. And, it seems the other seniors believe it, as well.

“We’ve been going to these camps since before sophomore year, and the work this team has put in, everyone, is more than I’ve seen it in all those years,” Gianoli said.

Now set to start their 2019 campaign — with the same 10 teams slated for regular season games as they had last year — Sunrise Mountain will travel to Central High on August 23. As such, the Mustangs will have a chance to exact revenge on some of the teams they fell to in the past, as well as defend bragging rights against the foes looking to do the same to them.

The AIA changed its football playoff format for the 2019 season, with an “open division” playoff consisting of eight teams from 4A, 5A and 6A to compete for the overall state championship aside from the individual conferences.

It is difficult to look far in the future, having not yet played a single game. But, that eight-team postseason, Johnson said, is the ultimate goal for a perennially-successful 5A squad.

“That would just prove all of the work during the season, all that stuff we’ve been doing since last year ended, and give us a chance to see what we can do against all the 6A teams or the top ones in 5A. So, it would be really cool,” Johnson said.