Editor’s Note: The Las Vegas Sun’s annual showcase of the best in high school sports, the Sun Standout Awards, was canceled this month as a precaution against the spread of COVID-19. While the pandemic may have pushed the event off the calendar until 2021, our commitment to spotlighting prep sports is undiminished. Our local athletes did some amazing things, both on and off the field. Here's one of the stories.
A Canyon Springs High football team that early last season was saddled with an 0-5 record and was struggling to find its way after graduating 33 seniors became an unlikely championship contender. It’s amazing what a few upset wins can do for a young team’s confidence.
That’s part of the charm of prep football: Regardless of what city you come from, your upbringing or struggles to compete, it’s 11 teenagers lined up against 11 teenagers under the Friday night lights. It’s a beautiful sight played out across the nation each week in the fall.
As we get older, the reality sets in that winning and losing is only part of the journey. Simply playing — strapping on the shoulder pads and representing the area you grew up in with lifelong friends — becomes what’s most important. If the football team has success, the rest of the school and neighboring community sure feels better about itself.
And in mid-November, that was the narrative at Canyon Springs, which was riding a four-game winning streak, including one of the most significant playoff upsets in recent memory when the Pioneers knocked off defending regional champion Arbor View in the first round.
It was a magical win — a botched field goal attempt in the final minutes that would have tied the game turned into a touchdown pass to win it. “We just got tired of losing,” senior defensive back Jayden Ireland said.
Then came an unlikely blow: Officials a few days later determined Canyon Springs used an ineligible player, forcing them to forfeit the win and awarding Arbor View a spot in the next round. Yep, the losing team, one that had already turned in its gear and started planning its offseason, would be given new life.
“We commit so much time to the process — basically 11 or 12 months,” Pioneers coach Gus McNair said. “We ask the kids to be equally committed. It hurt having to walk into a room and tell those kids you aren’t getting the opportunity you earned. The kids didn’t do anything wrong.”
For players like Ireland, the premature end to the season came with another reality. His high school career would also be over, and there was no guarantee he would find a college program. But, at least he had track, where last spring he was part of a relay team that took second at state and expected to again be competitive.
That track season, because of coronavirus, was canceled after only a few weeks. Ireland, again, was denied a chance to compete because of a situation he had no control over. What are the odds?
“I’ll be honest. At first it was hard,” he said. “But you know what? You can’t feel sorry for yourself.”
So instead of sulking, Ireland got to work. Eventually, there would be another game to play, and he’d be ready. He’s considered undersized at 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds but has a work ethic that is unmatched, McNair proudly says.
Ireland wakes up every morning at the same time and makes the same run to the Doolittle Community Park to train. There is no coach to push him or instruct him, just complete silence. The park is usually empty, so sparse that it’s peaceful.
Ireland goes through defensive back drills he sees on YouTube. He also listens to motivational speakers. Last month, he finally found a college home and will be leaving once the pandemic allows for Bethany College, an NAIA school in Kansas.
“We teach the kids to turn the adversity into fuel for the journey,” McNair said. “It’s OK to feel bad about a certain situation, but know the one thing that doesn’t stop is time. At some point, you preparation will meet opportunity, and what you do in preparation, it will show in opportunity.”
McNair never hesitates raving about the kids in his program, many of whom receive a bad rap because the school has many at-risk students. Those players who saw their season snatched from them haven’t stop preparing for the next opportunity. The adversity won’t define them.
Of the 14 seniors, all will graduate this month. Of the 14 seniors, 11 will play some level of college football. One is set to join the military. The others will attend college.
And for that reason, the season of heartache will be remembered for much more. Those kids from Canyon Springs, Ireland and his brothers for life, didn’t let the adversity interfere with the greater good of advancing onto better things in life.
“It could have been a real special year,” McNair said. “But the journey is far from being finished.”