RON SIDDLE/Valley Press
By GREG WAGNER
Valley Press Staff Writer
LANCASTER - The Valley knows they can run.
But ... can they pass?
The Spirits understand only a positive answer to that question will land them in the situation they've been yearning for since an early playoff exit last season - a Southern Section championship.
"You have to be diversified going into the playoffs, no team can be one-dimensional," coach Norm Dahlia said.
Paraclete High School, the Valley's lone remaining unbeaten team, boasts the most prolific offense in the area. Much of that body of work, though, has come via the Spirits' feet.
It's a culmination of the vision Dahlia brought to the school when he became head coach last year and switched the offense from a spread attack to the veer. That's on par with cooking up a hamburger for a vegan.
Through all the growing pains in converting what was a pass-happy formation to their new run-first mantra, the Spirits were able to eke out a winning record last year. That process was going to be hard enough, what with learning an offense that, this year, includes 18 separate formations, but Paraclete had to do it with injuries forcing it to use seven different quarterback.
Now, those missed blocking assignments have been solved. Tailbacks no longer need to be reminded what hole they are supposed to run through. Handoffs are crisp and the runs are crisper.
"It makes the veer go, it's so much easier," Dahlia said. "Instead of just drilling, drilling, now all we do is fine-tune."
After a year filled with trial and error that culminated in a first-round playoff loss to Santa Clara, Paraclete - a team now with 22 seniors - realized what would come about during it's second go-around with the veer.
"Just learning it is much more different than when you know it," quarterback Taylor Shirk said. "After that (playoff) game, we all felt like 'Just wait until next year.'"
Well, what Shirk and his teammates sought has arrived as, thanks in part to first-year offensive coordinator Titus Tuiasosopo, Dahlia's offense has been running rampant all season long.
Running being the operative word.
Thanks to a glut of talented players, the Spirits (5-0) have put up 281.8 yards a game on the ground. That includes a 409-yard outburst against Mojave and 350 yards in a victory over Desert.
"That's how it is this year," Shirk said. "We can line up three guys in the backfield, hand it off to any one of them and they will go get those yards."
Numbers like those don't go unnoticed for long and, in the past couple of weeks, the Spirits have begun facing defenses that have stacked up to nine players in the box in an attempt to slow down their track meet. With his team set to face unbeaten Brentwood, the No. 2-ranked team in the Northeast Division, this weekend and then run through its four-game Olympic League slate, Dahlia knows the Spirits - No. 2 in the Mid-Valley Division - are going to keep seeing defenses cheat up to stop the run.
That's why during Saturday's victory over Rosamond, Dahlia had Shirk and Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who both share time at quarterback, and continue to throw the ball even though the game was decided by halftime.
The numbers might not suggest it - Paraclete had just 87 yards in the air, with Tuiasosopo hitting on only four of 11 passes - but Paraclete saw it as a step in becoming the balanced offense it desires.
"It seems like every week we take the next step toward the offense we really want," Tuiasosopo said.
Ideally that offense will still be about 70% run, but that other 30% will be a whole lot more formidable that what Paraclete, averaging 80.8 passing yards a game, has shown already.
For when defenses pull up to try and stop either Jerry Kelly (9.4 yards per carry), Brandon Buteyn (9.1) or Dante Donato (7.6) - the list goes even deeper than that - when perfected, Tuiasosopo or Shirk can take advantage of man-to-man coverage on the wing and keep piling on the points.
"Once they do that then we have an answer," Dahlia said. "We can get you inside and then we can go outside."
The offense is predicated on the run, but it's not as if the Spirits don't have any options downfield.
When Paraclete does launch the ball, it has sturdy David Green and Thomas Caterina there to grab those passes. Green, who has the skills to play quarterback but is so athletic Dahlia wants him as a weapon in more than just one spot on offense, is the Spirits' deep threat, averaging 25 yards a catch.
"If he can touch it, he's going to catch it," Dahlia said.
Even though Paraclete has only 10 games on its schedule, the team began training camp this summer looking at a total of 14 - the last being the Mid-Valley championship game.
Halfway through the season, Paraclete is well on its way to attaining that lofty goal, set moments after its first year with Dahlia at the helm ended in playoff defeat.
"Hopefully it becomes one of the most special seasons any of us will ever have," Shirk said.
The Spirits certainly have the chance, but they might have to take to the air to get there.