WILLCOX — A third year under coach Alonzo Highsmith could bring Willcox football back into rarified air.

The former Arkansas Razorbacks linebacker who had a taste in the NFL is about to try and take a step up with prep players fully indoctrinated into his philosophy and system.

The team will find out if it’s ready with a season opener at Lordsburg, N.M., on Friday.

“Not to give anything away, but this is my third year here and I’ve had some kids for three years now,” Highsmith said. “It’s not about anybody else’s team. It’s about my guys. I know how we practice; I know the work we put in. If we show up to play, we’ll be fine.”

He took a 2-8 team and improved it to 5-5 his first year and took a step up last year to 7-3 and a final No. 10-ranking.

Admittedly, the Cowboys got a break in the schedule last year and competed in a weak five-team section, finishing 3-1. They get virtually the same schedule this year and, again, avoid three-time state champion Thatcher.

But Highsmith lost a lot of leadership to graduation last year and has to find new starting running backs, quarterback and wide receivers, plus fill in some offensive and defensive line positions.

“We’re filling them well,” he said. “At quarterback, we have a guy in there who will fill in well in Jacob Abarca, a sophomore. He’s a bigger body kid. Strong trunk, good arm. He’ll be able to stand in the pocket and deliver on throws.”

Plus, the coach said, “He’s been there all spring. He knows the offense. He’s getting better every day with his reads.”

Highsmith actually has experienced athletes at running back despite losing starters to graduation, including all-region stud Tanner Debaun.

“I have Ote Allsup, a junior, who can play QB, receiver, running back, but this year we’re going to try and focus him more on just running back (and linebacker). Hopefully we can get the best out of him that way,” Highsmith said.

“We also have Caiden Hall at running back (fullback) for his third year now. He’s a bruiser who can get the ball and go downhill because he’s quick, big and strong.”

Hall, a senior, also brings into play his leadership on defense.

“As a linebacker, he’s gotten faster, stronger and smarter. When you put all that together he has no choice but to be good. I’m anticipating he’s going to a better version of the kid who won defensive player of the section last year,” Highsmith said.

Highsmith does have has three returners on the offensive and defensive lines with Marcus Barba, Johnny Garcia and Cory Encinas. He has one returning starter at receiver with Cael Debaun, who caught a touchdown pass in a preseason scrimmage Thursday at Gilbert Christian.

“He’s an athlete. I want him to come out and show everybody what we know, and the athlete he can be,” Highsmith said. “We want him to unleash it. If he does that, we’ll be a better team.”

Debaun will be joined at receiver by a sophomore and two freshmen.

“Our freshmen, Christian Pando and Aiden Fuentes, are bigger body kids who look well for their age. They’re young and eager and want to go get it. It helps them that they feel they have something to prove. They played really well in the scrimmage. They caught the ball well and ran after the catch,” Highsmith said.

They’re complemented by sophomore Rico Lunt, a 6-feet, 4-inches tall basketball athlete and possible tight end who Highsmith likes near the goal line.

“Once he comes into his own, he’s hard to stop in the red zone. We need that red zone threat,” Highsmith said.

The Cowboys coach feels it will be an even match-up when they open the season this Friday at the Mavericks.

“It’s important to get off to a good start, get some leverage and momentum,” Highsmith said. “It’s always great to start off on a positive note.”

Willcox won three of tits first four last year, including a 44-18 decision over the Mavericks. It also has the same first four games as last year.

“I don’t think Willcox is a surprise any more. Teams come down here and expect to get a good game. I expect teams to come and give their best,” Highsmith said.

It helps that he has stability in his coaching staff. Phillip Steward, Mike Rand and RK Rockhill “are my guys. The team responds well to them. I’m happy they’re back. I respect their opinion, I listen to them.”

Highsmith and his Cowboys have a real shot at an 8-2 mark this year. It would require no stumbles and one break-through against Benson, Morenci or Arizona Lutheran. It would bring some glory back to a program that last tasted it in the 2009-10 run under Jim Hughes.

‘I see me going down as a winner in high school football,” Highsmith stated. “Keep my head down and win. That’s what drives me.”

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