Summit High football aims to stay ‘above the line’ with new head coach James Wagner
BRECKENRIDGE — Five years after he first stepped onto the turf at Tiger Stadium, James Wagner will coach his first game for the Summit High School football program Friday evening.
It was five years ago when Wagner, visiting his brother in Breckenridge on a ski trip, did what football coaches often do. On his way back home to Michigan from Breckenridge, he stopped at Summit High School to check out the field and facilities.
“Man, you’ve got mountains in the background,” Wagner said about his thoughts at the time. “It’s a beautiful scene. What a dream it’d be to coach here.”
Fast forward to this past winter. Wagner, living in Fort Collins, visited his brother on another ski trip and stopped into a Tigers basketball game to find out more about the open position. A few months later in June, he was hired to replace John Shirkey, who led the Tigers to competitive 3-7 records in each of his three seasons as head coach.
The program Wagner took over, like most any transitioning from one coaching staff to another, was in flux. Sophomore corner back and slot receiver Aidan Collins said the day Wagner walked in, just three players were in the weight room. By the end of the summer, 25 Tigers were in there for Wagner’s four-day-a-week, two-hours-a-day lifting program. The coach also introduced a once weekly “offense on air” session for the Tigers to get up to speed on his new spread offensive scheme.
“The first day he got the job, he was in the office scheming till midnight.” Collins said. “Every day all summer, he was there every time we were lifting. His truck would always be parked out there.”
Along with the on-the-field changes, Wagner also worked to instill his culture and belief system, one predicated on being “above the line” in football and, more importantly, in life.
“And there’s a fine line,” said Wagner, who coached running backs last year at the 5A Fossil Ridge High School. “You always have a choice, and you want to be above the line in the things that you do — in terms of discipline, in terms of integrity, in terms of doing things right.
Aug. 30: vs. Salida, W 50-28
Sept. 6: vs. Moffat County, L 41-8
Sept. 13: vs. Conifer, L, 56-19
Sept. 20: at Woodland Park, L, 49-10
Sept. 27: at Elizabeth, L, 38-0
Oct. 11-12: Homecoming – vs. Battle Mountain, W, 35-12
Oct. 18: at Eagle Valley, L, 12-7
Oct. 25: at Steamboat Springs, W, 19-7
Nov. 1: vs. Glenwood Springs, L, 36-30
Nov. 8: at Palisade, L, 42-6
To Wagner being “above the line” means not blaming others, not complaining and owning your own faults.
There’s also the equation at the core of Wagner’s football program: E plus R equals O. The “E” signifies an event, such as an interception in a football game or the death of a family member in life. Wagner has taught the team that the “R,” or reaction, is the most important aspect of the equation. The bigger the event, the bigger your “R” needs to be, Wagner said. And it’s your “R” that dictates your “O,” or outcome.
Wagner went over these football and life lessons earlier this summer when the team spent the night together at the athletic department’s new 1-year-old indoor turf facility. Along with bonding over games of dodgeball, the Tigers got familiar with life in the Summit program under Wagner.
A coach and former inside linebacker who prides himself on defense, the Tigers will pivot to a 4-2-5 defense this season. It’s one based on two safeties in hybrid roles, one on the strong side and one on the weak side, tasked with both covering receivers downfield and playing physical against the run at the line of scrimmage and off the edge.
To start the season, Wagner is leaning on seniors Alexi Urtusuastegui-Nevarez and Al Espinosa to play at those spots. Wagner initially thought about putting senior Daniel Gonzalez in one of those hybrid safety spots, but the bulked up team leader pointed in Al’s direction for that role and has settled into wreaking as much havoc as possible as a defensive end on the edge.
“He’s got a motor, and you see it in practice. He goes hard on every play,” Wagner said about Gonzalez. “He’s setting the standard physically, for sure.”
On the offensive side, Gonzalez will be a key cog of Wagner’s spread attack thanks to his versatility at tight end. Cam Kalaf has seized the starting quarterback position as he’s grown into his body in time for his junior year. Wagner, Gonzalez and other Tigers expect a big dual-threat year for Kalaf, who is now healthy after battling some chronic injuries in the past.
Kalaf and the Tigers’ backfield will play behind leaders on the line such as the shifty and strong Espinosa at offensive guard. In the backfield, the Tigers are without Noah Martens after the do-it-all athlete transferred to Evergreen High School in time for his junior season. Martens is a massive loss, but senior Brandon Montealegre is back to continue to bruise opposing defenders his senior year. Montealegre will be joined in a hungry backfield by junior spark plug Jackson Veeneman and sophomore Alex Sanchez, who has stepped up this summer.
Out wide, the Tigers will employ several receivers, including the shifty and slight sophomore Collins and the tenacious Urtusuastegui-Nevarez as well as junior Kobe Cortright and Tucker Broughton.
“I want to be able to get our athletes the ball,” Wagner said. “And get our athletes in space.”
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