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Sunset Football Season Preview
9/11/2019 7:27 PM

The standard at Sunset isn't a certain win total expectation or a playoff plateau but a set core of values.

Play to the whistle, all out, all of the time. Compete at all costs. Control what you can control.

Admittedly, head coach Damien Merrick says it can be borderline cliche. But those beliefs have continually kept Sunset near the top of the Metro League, year in and year out. A season ago, the Apollos took second in Metro and was a play or two away from the 6A quarterfinals. That's their floor. The ceiling?

Armed with the best returning quarterback in the conference in senior Callum Craig, a veteran offensive line, a defensive game wrecker in Ika Nguamo and droves of promise at the skill positions and around a young defense, there is no cap on Sunset's seasonal outlook. That's for the Apollos to figure out and fulfill.

"At the end of the day there are a lot of variables that we don't have control over as far as winning and losing football games," Merrick said. "All we can control is our effort, attitude, and execution that day and that play. We really try to live by that. Our only goal is our kids are getting better and competing every day, whether that's fall camp, daily doubles or a Friday night varsity game. We compete with ourselves and against our teammates first."

Sunset's fraternity of gifted signal-callers added another member when Craig burst onto the scene as a junior, using his electric right arm and explosive athletic ability to help the Apollos reach the second round of the 6A playoffs. Craig is a game-changing athlete, a uber-competitive quarterback who can extend plays with his legs, rip off chunk plays on the ground or fit passes through tight windows. He earned first-team All-Metro honors a year ago and has worked hard over the offseason to improve his decision making and accuracy from the pocket.

"Callum is very confident, not arrogant, and very self-assured in his abilities," Merrick said. "Our guys see somebody who doesn't have any self-doubt. It's pretty easy to follow a guy into battle like that, someone who's willing to put it all on the line physically, but also he's a competitor who just doesn't like to lose and will do whatever it takes to win the game. He's a gamer. Put him on the field and he's going to try and figure out a way to get it done."

Better yet, Merrick said Craig stepped up as a leader in the spring and summer, becoming the type of nurturer who can direct his teammates without disrespecting them.

"(Craig) can provide constructive criticism to kids and say it with a proper tone of voice where it's going to be well received," Merrick said. "Sometimes kids will try to provide feedback to their peers and it comes across as really short and kind of nasty. Kids don't respond well to that. He's done a great job of letting kids know when they're in the wrong spot or do the wrong thing."

Craig will be the first to tell you a quarterback is only as good as the protection in front of him and the playmakers around him. Senior guard Gustavo Mendez was second-team All-Metro last year and senior center Joe Divine was third-team All-Metro. Each standout started all 11 games at their respective positions last season. Junior guard Kanen Rossi started the final eight or nine games of the year as well. Senior tackle Eric Tubby played extensively as a junior, starting at times, platooning in others. It's a group Merrick said communicates well, understands the offense and has played a lot of football together already, which is instrumental inside the trenches.

Senior wide receiver Nate Archibald is one of Craig's go-to weapons in the passing game, a sure-handed second-team All-Metro pick on the outside. Senior wide receiver Jake Eilers received a ton of game reps last year. Juniors Aidan Hull, Cameron Jackson, Matt Johnson and sophomore Chase Limbocker are in the mix at outside wide receiver, a position that is deep and able-bodied, Merrick said. Seniors Evan Huntington, Antonio Hernandez, juniors Jalen Owens and Nic Janati are battling for the starting slot position. Seniors Asad McClean and Bryan Espindola, junior Connor Stevens and Tom McMillan are competing for the all-important tight end spot in the offense.

Senior running back Kylie Sagon split time in the backfield a season ago and will get the bulk of the carries in offensive coordinator Dominic Ferraro's uptempo, spread, balanced attack. Stevens and senior J.R. Paner will see time at running back. Merrick said he and his staff are "really excited" about sophomore Caleb Kim, who swung up to the varsity level during the Apollos' playoff run.

Nguamo's presence in the middle is monstrous. As a defensive tackle, the detonative big man can collapse the pocket on passing downs, shut down a rushing attack and fights through double teams. He plays with a mean streak and is a menace in the most endearing sort of way. Stevens started at linebacker as a sophomore and Archibald started at safety where he earned second-team all-Metro honors, giving Sunset a trio of stalwart security blankets up the middle of its defense. Their seasoning and insight into the Apollo defensive scheme will help guide a younger group. Liam Brown is an athletic, 6-foot-6, 270-pound two-way lineman who will play lots on each side of the football. Senior Drew Stehman, Mendez and Rossi are in the mix along the defensive line. Senior Sam Wallace, Sagon, Paner are seeing time at inside linebacker. Sophomore Jackson Knight, senior Bryan Espindola, Hull, Johnson, McMillan, McLean are competing for spots at outside linebacker.

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