Sparks struggled to an 0-10 mark last fall, leaving the SHS coaching staff to re-evaluate its entire program, everything from offseason conditioning to scheme focus and player character.
More than 10 months after wrapping up an insufferable 2012 season, the Railroaders have a fresh start, gearing up for their 2013 schedule, which kicks off Aug. 30 with a non-conference road game at Yerington.
"The offseason has been very good," said Sparks coach Rob Kittrell, the dean of high school football coaches in the Washoe County School District. "We had a meeting back in March where we talked about changing things in the program. We wanted better work ethic and more commitment. That started with me and went all the way down.
"The response has been good. We've gotten a handful of kids who have bought in. We wanted more kids: committed to the weight room, being good citizens and getting good grades. We instituted a scoring system based on kids doing well and we'll be awarding (honorary) black shirts over the next week."
Sparks coaches believe the more hard work the kids put in during the offseason off the football field, the more dividends they'll see paid on it, in the regular season.
"It's simple," Kittrell said. "The more buy-in we get from the kids in what we're doing, the more pride they have in themselves. For example, we had 15 kids show up to paint the press box all by their own doing. It was their idea for a community service project. It's neat to see our football players having pride in their school. That pride can translate on to the field when they're playing."
The Railroaders' season ended last fall with a heart-breaking 28-27 road loss to league rival Wooster. Sparks came within a two-point conversion in the final minute from stealing its first and only victory of the season. That win would have left a much sweeter taste in the mouths of Sparks players during the offseason, but Kittrell said the game still can serve as a stepping stone for 2013.
"We're going to be a lot more competitive," Kittrell said. "We were pretty young last year with a lot of just second-year football players. You saw their improvement throughout last year. Getting to that Wooster game where we lost on a two-point conversion, that loss still showed us there's a carrot out there that we can be competitive and can win games."
Sparks graduated a three-year starter at quarterback in Geo Vasquez this past June. Senior Mastor Sells will be the new guy under center for the Sparks gridders. That's one reason the Railroaders' coaching staff is scrapping its old pro-set offensive scheme for more of a spread plan.
"We probably will not do as much throwing as we were able to do with Geo, but Mastor has a running threat we didn't have before," Kittrell said. "We are really excited … Offensively, we want to spread teams out horizontally, sideline to sideline and make them defend the ball. We'll have a lot of read options."
Kittrell believes the running game can be a strength this fall. Sparks racked up more than 600 rushing yards in its last four games a year ago and returns six different linemen, who all started at different times last season.
Tackle David Valentine and center Julian Nobles anchor that offensive group. Hennessy Banks, Zach Hix and Chris Cabrera are all seeing time at running back.
The defense is the biggest area of concern for Kittrell heading into the new season. Sparks has struggled to tackle consistently and has given up far too many big plays in recent years. That's made defensive fundamentals a key area of focus during the SHS crew's summer program and preseason camp.
"We've got to be fundamentally sound on defense. "We're limiting our defensive concepts and working on being fundamentally sound on our reads and tackling … It's been a struggle the last couple of years. Hopefully by spending so much time on it, the kids will get to understand and get more comfortable, more confident. Then the desire and attitude will come."
Sparks had not participated in the one full-contact summer camp that state rules allow in recent seasons, but that changed this year. The Railroaders took part in the four-team Spanish Springs summer camp, hosted at Golden Eagle Regional Park three weeks ago. Kittrell believes the camp participation and its recent timeliness is paying off.
"We didn't have everybody at camp but the core kids were there and they did everything we asked," Kittrell said. "We got a lot better and got everything out of it. It was a good learning experience.
"We didn't have that first-day tentativeness when we put our pads on," Kittrell said. "That's been frustrating in the past. Are we going to be more physical in that first game? I believe we are and I'd like to think so, but we'll have to wait and see."
Following the season opener at Yerington, Sparks will immediately get into its nine-game Division I-A North League schedule, starting with Elko at home, Sept. 6.