A season ago, the Cienega Bobcats started a new era of football under head coach Pat Nugent following a 2014 season that extended into the playoffs before a loss to Peoria Liberty ended their hopes.
It was a rough first season as Nugent led the Bobcats to a 4-6 record filled with many firsts — first time losing to Catalina Foothills as well as first loss to Sahuaro. The 2015 season ended on a storybook ending, however. A come-from-behind win against rival Salpointe Catholic turned a few heads for this season, and what a season it has been.
Nugent’s team has talent all across the board. The two-quarterback system with Arizona Wildcats commit Jamarye Joiner (a transfer from Salpointe) and returner Tyler Hammons as well as the running back-by-committee led by Aaron Sauls has been dominating. Their unbeaten run is comparable to Cienega’s state runner-up team of 2011, which carries a significant bond with this 2016 team.
Bryce Fontana, the little brother of Vaughn Fontana — one of the great linemen in Cienega history — has lived up to the expectations of his brothers and his father. His father Mark Fontana – an offensive lineman during the Dick Tomey years at Arizona – has been the line coach at Cienega for years.
It has always been the plan that Bryce was to fill the shoes of his older brother. Vaughn is a key figure in that state runner-up team. Bryce had a front row seat to the show as his older brother helped lead his team to an undefeated year all the way up to the state title game.
Fast forward to 2016: Bryce’s impact on his teammates has a similar effect to what Vaughn meant to the Bobcats five years ago.
“People look to him as a mentor and a leader,” senior defensive end/tight end Skyler Cavanaugh told me. “Our season this year has been based around the phrase ‘win the day’, and unlike like last year, we all bought in, especially Bryce. He just doesn’t take no for an answer.”
BRYCE FONTANA’S VARSITY STATS AT CIENEGA
Nugent believes Bryce’s leadership has meant the difference in Cienega’s 8-0 start.
“Bryce is our leader on both sides of the ball he is a dominate player and (he) controls the line of scrimmage with his speed and strength,” Nugent said. “The players look up to him as a leader and his work ethic is in matched even with his success.”
Success defines Bryce’s career. He is a four-year varsity starter, totaling 89 career tackles and five sacks as well as being a moving force on the offensive line. This is by far his best season. Since his freshman year, he has been part of Cienega teams that went 5-5, 11-2, 4-6 and so far this undefeated season.
Bryce realizes what’s at stake for the Bobcats with his high school career winding down.
“I’ve had a lot of ups and downs that have really helped me grow as both a person and a player,” he said. “For example, going from a 5-5 season my freshman year to an 11-2 final-four appearance my sophomore year to a poor 4-6 record last year and finally to this currently undefeated season. These past four years have been everything I’ve imagined since I was 6 years old and more.”
Neither Bryce or the Bobcats are slowing down. Last week, the Bobcats honored their seniors on Senior Night by torching the Buena Colts 62-17, sending their veterans out right.
“This has been the best season of my life, not simply because of our record, but because I have never felt so close to a group of teammates,” Bryce said. “We are truly a family and it means the world to me to be able to play ball with these kids I call a family every Friday night.
“Even though it’s senior night, this season is still far from over in our eyes.”
And definitely far from over as the Bobcats take on host Ironwood Ridge (7-1) this Friday in a pivotal game that could be the game of the year with huge playoff implications on the line. Bryce and his teammates then close out the regular season at Mountain View for another marquee game.