As Pima’s new head football coach, Jim Monaco has his work cut out for him.
In short — replace the sophomores.
In junior college, players only get two seasons of eligibility, and the Aztecs will be losing quite a few of their best players going into 2014.
“We have a solid foundation,” Monaco said. “You can’t replace kids like Mitch Fischer and Tyler D’Amore.”
Monaco added that the Aztecs will probably return close to 50 players, a rarity historically at Pima because of transfers and academic ineligibility.
“That’s been a great thing that we’ve been able to get them going back to college,” Monaco said. “We’re not losing as many. Hopefully it’ll stay at that number, and hopefully we’ll be able to get maybe some mid-season transfers in — maybe if they’ll bounce back from Division I, or some kid that might’ve graduated early.”
The Aztecs won’t really know what sort of recruits will be coming in until at least February, as Pima often winds up becoming a fallback option for players struggling academically, or who lack Division I or II offers but have the talent to possibly eventually get them.
“We’re gonna lose some people and we know that,” Monaco said. “We’re gonna have to work hard to replace them.”
Here’s a look at who Pima is losing, and who’s coming back.
First, the aforementioned Ironwood Ridge graduates: D’Amore and Fischer.
D’Amore split quarterbacking duties with Jack Nykaza in 2013, and while he wasn’t quite prolific through the air (842 yards, zero touchdowns, nine interceptions), he was the team’s leader and solid running the ball (228 yards, team-high five touchdowns).
Fischer, a star running back at I-Ridge, was a standout on defense for the Aztecs.
A safety, he led Pima in tackles and was second with five interceptions. He has offers from New Mexico State and South Dakota State, but might try to walk on at the UA.
Also in the secondary, the Aztecs lose Mikell Everette, who led the team with six interceptions. Everette was getting looks from UA, Arizona State, USC, Cincinnati and Colorado State, but hasn’t received any offers yet.
Then there’s linebacker Eddie Releford, who led the team with 4ƒ sacks and has received interest from Marshall, Montana and NAU.
On offense, the biggest loss will be on the line.
“Our offensive line was very sophomore-oriented,” Monaco said, “we’ve got guys that are going to play, guys that are coming back, but you’re not going to replace some of the kids.”
That includes Austin Andrade, Quincy Davison, Trent Austin and Charles Healey.
The Aztecs didn’t have much production at receiver, but Denzel Jones is still a big loss — he was Pima’s biggest threat at receiver. He had 15 receptions for 271 yards in 2013.
Who’s coming back
Nykaza, a former UA walk-on, is set to return, and the starting job at quarterback should be his for the taking. He threw for 669 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions, and added three rushing scores.
In the backfield, four of Pima’s top six rushers return, including leading rusher Kevionte Alexander, a Rincon/University grad.
Alexander had 322 yards and four touchdowns on 76 carries.
Antony Thompson probably would have led the team in rushing, but his season was cut short in the Aztecs’ third game. He’ll be back next year.
Pima will lose its top five receivers, though. It’s top returner is Dominic Moore, a Santa Rita grad, who had nine catches for 142 yards.
“Our biggest weakness right now is going to be our receiving corps,” Monaco said.
That, and filling the holes in the secondary.
Among Fischer, Everette and Patrick Mulrow, that’s 140 tackles and 12 interceptions to replace.
“It’s a concern,” Monaco said, “but we have an awful lot of people we can plug in there, so it’s more of an unknown then a concern.”
That includes Jordan Hughes (Sabino) and Isaac Chacon (Canyon del Oro), who combined for 53 tackles and two interceptions.
• The women’s basketball team snapped a two-game losing streak Monday with a 65-64 win over Gillette (Wyo.) College in the first day of the Bruce Fleck Classic at Pima.
Raja Moreno-Ross (Tucson High) snapped a 64-64 tie by making one of two free throws in the final seconds.
Last week, the Aztecs fell 109-72 to Central Arizona on Wednesday.