CASA GRANDE — Casa Grande Union football players and coaches experienced their fair share of isolation the last few months. Now back on the field, the Cougars can’t wait to put a new bag of offensive tricks to work.
Like a majority of the public, quarantine and social distancing in the age of COVID-19 has been tough on the Cougars. But after months of planning and strategizing a safe return to play during the pandemic, the entire team is itching to play football again.
The Cougars head into the 2020 season with star quarterback Angel Flores poised to take the team to new heights.
“I’m fired up, the kids are. They’re excited,” CG Union coach Jake Barro said before his team played an intrasquad scrimmage Sept. 18. “I applaud the AIA for taking into account the mental health of these kids because they spent (the) end of March through really mid-July just by themselves.”
Barro, a member of the Arizona Football Coaches Association board, was a key figure in helping put forth a plan for a safe return to football. It took calling officials in several other states — such as Texas, New Mexico and Utah — comparing notes, and ultimately finding a plan that worked for Arizona once COVID-19 metrics reached recommended levels.
“It all hinged on the numbers,” Barro said. “If the metrics weren’t met, this would have been for nothing. But the metrics were met, Arizona is trending in the right direction. If we stay doing that, and we keep wearing masks and we keep distancing at practice, we should have a full season. I really feel good about it.”
The Cougars, and the rest of the 4A Conference, will have a seven-game schedule during the pandemic-shortened season.
Expectations are high for a CG Union team that went 7-5 last season, winning its first playoff game in 26 years with a 26-19 victory over Sahuarita Walden Grove. The Cougars then came within inches of reaching the 4A state semifinals before losing on a last-second field goal to Goodyear Desert Edge.
Those expectations have made it easier for Barro to sell his message and goals to the players.
And when CG Union finally takes the field for its first regular season game Oct. 2 at Tucson Salpointe Catholic, expect the Cougars to unveil dozens of plays and formations they have not displayed before.
That kind of ambitious offense can only be run with a top-flight quarterback, which the Cougars have in Flores, a junior getting more and more attention from Division I programs.
Flores is getting stronger in the weight room every day, but even more importantly, his mind continues to get sharper.
“Mentally, he’s in a totally different place at the quarterback position,” Barro said. “He’s making decisions and reads ... our offensive playbook is probably three times bigger than it was last year, simply because he can do it.”
One of his biggest weapons on offense is running back RJ Keeton, who flashed explosiveness and versatility last year as a sophomore. Keeton can line up all over the field and make plays.
On defense, CG Union is led by senior middle linebacker Jake Thomas. He is the quarterback of the defense, and while he has always been a player who leads by example, Barro said Thomas is “coming out of his shell” and starting to become a vocal leader as well.
Senior defensive back Jett Hale is another impact player for the Cougars.
Barro said a few players he expects break out in a big way include sophomore DeAndray Kelley — a two-way player — outside linebacker Ben Casper and receiver Anthony Flores, who could add a deep-threat dimension to the Cougars offense.
Most of all, Barro and the Cougars are thrilled to be on the field again.
“We’re just glad to be out here playing,” he said.