Photo by Kerensa Uyeta-Buckley

Bryan Golder, formerly of Liberty Ranch, coaches Mesa Verde players Oct. 21 at Mesa Verde High School.

For their first game, the 2019 Mesa Verde Mavericks had just 21 players available to play for their school and hometown pride.

To have that few players probably wasn’t much of a shocker, given that the previous season the team had gone 1-9 and the team hadn’t had general success in four years.

The Mavericks also had a new coaching staff, most of whom were hired from outside of the school district and hadn’t been familiar with the players’ skills until this year.

However, the Mavericks won their first game 32-19 against Lindhurst, and as a result of seeing that win, four players asked to join the football team.

After their next game against Golden Sierra, which was a 41-6 loss to the 2018 DVII Section runner-up, six more students approached new head coach Bryan Golder and said they wanted to join the team.

After the loss to Golden Sierra, the Mavericks went on to win their next three games and have their best start in years with four wins and one loss.

With every win (Mesa Verde is 5-2 overall and 2-1 in the Golden Empire League), the team has attracted more attention from the community and outside Citrus Heights as well; Golder, whose staff includes a mini reunion of former Liberty Ranch High School coaches Kevin Tibbetts, Ken Westlund and Bill Willmon (Golder is the former offensive line coach from Liberty Ranch), expressed his love for the work that this new team is putting in.

“These young men have done such a great job this year. The only team that’ll beat this team is themselves. I feel like, with this team this year, they set the bar very high,” Golder said.

Entering this season, challenges faced the Mavericks in every direction; some players weren’t familiar with how to even perform some basic skills, and reviewing game film was new to them as well.

This year, they started with the basics and it worked.

“An astronomical amount,” Golder said, when asked how much preparation went into getting to where the team is now. “We had to start from ground zero. We had to re-lay the surface and we built a brand new foundation, building structure, character. The biggest thing is love. We talk about unconditional love, and we’ve learned that, with that word love, there is so much more we’re able to get out of them.”

“They keep us on our toes. They want us to have more discipline than we had last year,” Jshawn Brown, a running back and strong safety, said of his coaches. “They want us to dial in and get everything right.”

“I’m the O-line coach, and when I got here and first got introduced and identified who was going to play O-line, I became very aware that a lot of kids did not know a lot about it. Even though they played offense and had been on the O-Line, they really had no fundamentals, and first thing I thought was, it’s kind of like starting from scratch,” Bill Willmon said.

The Mavericks, who cancelled their third game due to not having enough players, moved on from that disappointment and beat Encina Prep 34-0 the next week and then won the Citrus Heights Bowl 41-14 against San Juan.

On Oct. 4, they beat Pioneer 20-7 and most recently defeated Mira Loma 40-6.

“It’s been 110 percent positive. They love the coaches. They can feel the care they bring as a staff every day and they really care about the success, not only on the field, they’re really big on grades in the classroom,” said Cody Allred, who coached the Mavericks’ JV team the last two years. “They preach that every week, and really just being better young men in the future is the message they’re receiving. They’re grasping it and the success is showing for sure.”

Used to being written off by opponents, Mesa Verde hasn’t had a winning season since 2004, when the program went 6-4 overall and 3-3 in league. Even that year, the program started with a 2-2 record, giving this year’s program the potential to be one of the best in recent history.

“This year I feel like the coaches want to help the team to learn to actually know how to play football. They spend time and they make sure we know so we’re not freaking out during games, and we have a feeling of what we’re going into,” said tight end Franklin Smith.

In comparing this year to last season, Daniel Rolling, a right guard and defensive linebacker, noted the mentality has changed.

“The atmosphere was come play football. Now we have a focus, we’re all trying to put in the work to get something. We’re all trying to change the culture,” Rolling said.

Golder, Willmon, Tibbetts and Westlund all coached together on the 2015 Liberty Ranch Sac-Joaquin Section Final team.

They helped turn around that year, and that drive is seemingly taking on a new form in this young workhorse Maverick program, as players are feeling their passion on the field.

“During games, whenever we get a big hit or something, all of our coaches will just get super hyped, and I don’t see coaches do this often where they’ll come to you and make sure, if you did something cool, you’ll know you did something awesome. Or when you score a touchdown, all the coaches, they’ll walk out and they’ll give every single one of us (even if they had nothing to do with it) a high five, say ‘good job, say you contributed to this,’” Smith said.

“They’re a great bunch of kids, they work hard, and they never give up so they’ve been able to improve,” Westlund said during practice on Oct. 21.

The Mavericks will play Woodland Thursday at San Juan High School, which is their home field, at 7 p.m., and will look to add a third league win.

“From where they were when I met them last summer to where they’re at today, it’s unbelievable how much they’ve learned and how they’re grasping,” Tibbetts said, as the Mavericks ran sprints on the worn and patchy green and yellow field. “It’s not that these kids never wanted to learn how to play the game. From what I saw last summer to where they’re at today is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen since I started coaching, that they came that far that fast.”