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Sunset not looking too far ahead with talented roster, but Apollos appear poised for playoffs

TIMES FILE PHOTO - Sunset senior Gabe Leonard was a second-team all-Metro League running back last year.

If there's a team that could separate itself from the muddle of similarly-talented Metro teams and possibly test Jesuit's grip on the conference crown, it's Sunset.

The Apollos are laden with playmakers at running back and wide receiver. Their offensive line is the most seasoned in Metro and got a huge boost in off-season transfer Tyler Ganoung. Sunset's coaching staff is one of the best top-to-bottom in the league and remains consistently intact from year-to-year. That 3-7 overall record and fifth place finish in Metro in 2016 should be taken with a grain of salt. Last season Sunset lost six games by 10 points or less and four of those were by single digits including a gut-punching 28-27 6A first round loss to Sprague.

With the most returning seniors in Metro, Sunset is close to the breakthrough it's chased after for the last handful of years or so.

Just don't talk to the Apollos about preseason expectations. Last summer, perhaps, Sunset got caught up in the hype and setting lofty goals. This year it's nose to the grindstone and going from week-to-week.

"We want to get better every day," Sunset head coach Damien Merrick said. "We feel like if we do that and control what we can control, we'll let the cards fall where they may. We have the right kind of kids in that they're team-first. I feel like last year we did ourselves a disservice putting all these goals out there. We kind of lost sight of our main focus, which is getting better as an individual and as a unit. To be honest, we haven't had one team meeting where we've talked about expectations as far as win-loss or records. We're taking it day-by-day."

Looking at Sunset's roster, specifically on offense, however, it's hard not to conjure up the possibilities of what's to come.

Ganoung has played primarily at guard — the same spot he started at as a sophomore and junior at Prairie (WA) — but he can shift out to tackle. Center Isaac Lovings was a third-team all-Metro selection as a junior. Junior Hunter Newcomb emerged during the spring and play guard or tackle. Seniors Hayden Bean and Sam Carlson have extensive starting experience on the varsity level and can play anywhere up front.

"The real important thing is gelling and doing the job together," Merrick said. "No amount of individual experience can replace how important it is for those guys to be on the same page and know what each other is thinking."

Seniors Gabe Leonard, Carter Webb, Nathan Kimball and Luke Schwartz will all see time at running back and bring different sorts of running styles to the table. As a junior, Schwartz played most junior varsity ball. But, against Sprague in the playoffs, Schwartz stepped up huge and enjoyed a breakout performance that he hopes to build upon this coming year. Kimball is more of a defensive player, yet he had an impressive outing in Sunset's scrimmage in late-August.

Leonard is a big-play threat whenever the ball is in his grasp. A weapon in the passing games because of his great hands and a shifty runner out of the backfield, the senior was a second-team all-Metro running back in '16 and will play on both sides of the ball.

"There's no doubt in my mind he's ready to have a breakout year," Merrick said of Leonard. "He's put on a little bit of weight and is a little thicker and stronger than he was. We're expecting big things from him."

Webb is a home-run hitter who didn't play football last year as a junior, but played varsity as a sophomore and exhibited the type of speed that can't be taught. A 200-meter state finalist last spring, Webb has stood out to Merrick not just because he's fast, but because he's morphed into a more physical back who seeks out contact.

"He's become a football player who also runs track," Merrick said. "He's stronger and sturdier and put on some weight, but hasn't lost a step at all as far as his speed. He's running tough. He should have a big year as well."

Senior quarterback Coleman Newsom is the triggerman for offensive coordinator Dominic Ferraro's fast-paced, spread offense. Though Newsom backed up long-time starter Jason DuMont for two seasons, the signal caller has seen plenty of varsity action and started a few times as a sophomore. He's a smart, willing leader with an accurate right arm and a great grasp of Sunset's intricate attack.

"Not only does he know what he's supposed to be doing on a play, but he knows what all 11 players' responsibilities on offense, which is important," Merrick said. "I think he'll surprise some people with his athleticism. He's got better escapability and pocket presence than people realize. I think what's impressed me the most is his willingness to call kids out in a good, positive way and hold some the receivers accountable if they're jogging on a route or running the wrong route. He's done great."

Senior wide receiver Nick Cizik, juniors Trey Marchesi and Nick Halvorsen will see time at slot. Seniors Joel Bieber, Kian Patton, Ryan Olson and Cole Fontaine have all done a "great job" at outside wide receiver and will rotate in along the perimeter. Senior tight end Coulter Layden and juniors Ben McMillan and Marve Nyembo are battling it out for the starting job.

With so many capable, potentially explosive playmakers chopping at the bit to get the rock, Ferraro should have a field day finding ways to put his top players in position to thrive. It's a great problem to have and one the offensive coordinator did spectacularly at Westview in 2015 with a plethora of offensive weapons.

"We're going to have to get creative to make sure we get our best athletes enough touches," Merrick said.

Newcomb and Pasion will fortify Sunset's defensive line. Lovings and Carlson have played well at inside linebacker along with junior Kaden Williams. Kimball and Leonard are leading the fray at outside linebacker along with Bieber. Webb, Olson, Cizik and Jadon Folmer have stood out at corner with Schwartz and Fontaine at safety.

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