SOUTHEAST GLENDALE — No matter the level of improvement seen by Glendale High Coach Alan Eberhart, he's well aware that football is a game of numbers and the most important statistics are wins and losses.
"We've come a long way in a lot of areas, but ultimately it's gonna be judged, I don't care what anybody says, by how many games you win," Eberhart said.
Last year, Glendale won just one game, defeating archrival Hoover in the final week of the season to cast aside a winless season.
This year, Glendale begins the 2011 campaign with the glaring number of just 25 players on the team.
"It's the No. 1 problem since we've gotten here, there's just not enough interest in football," Eberhart said. "Quite honestly, I don't have the answers."
Eberhart contends that last year's 1-9 team, which took seventh place in the Pacific League, eventually dropped in roster size to 25 players or so later in the season, but to have the number so low at this point of the year is alarming.
"That we're this low, this early, is concerning," Eberhart said.
Glendale football's traditional tribulations, players quitting and athletes in other sports being urged not to come out for football are all contributors to the lackluster numbers, according to Eberhart, a Glendale High graduate heading into his third year coaching the Nitros after a long and successful tenure as the Crescenta Valley head coach.
"It's pretty surprising," said junior Mike Davis, a starting wideout and safety. "We keep going up and down with the numbers. It's pretty frustrating."
Alas, Eberhart and Co. do not offer any solutions to the numbers problem, only begrudging acceptance and a willingness to move forward and improve despite statistical pitfalls.
"We're just gonna play with what we've got and do the best we can," Eberhart said. "We like our football team 11 on 11. If we can keep our 11 healthy and keep them rotated … I think we're OK."
The offense — headed by a trio of skill players — appears to be the Nitros' strength moving into the team's season opener against Hoover on Thursday at Moyse Field.
"Our offense is real good this year," Davis said. "We're a lot better than last year. We can run, we can pass."
Indeed, last year's Nitros favored a run-heavy approach that will remain in some supply, but Eberhart is hopeful that a passing game will open up.
While All-Area and All-Pacific League quarterback Alex Yoon returns, Glendale will be quarterbacked by senior Evan Norton. However, Yoon, a senior, will still be the focal point of the Nitros' wing-T offense, as he moves to fullback as the primary ball carrier in the offense.
"Alex is a tremendously talented football player," Eberhart said. "This kid's good."
In Eberhart's words, Yoon will be the Nitros' "go-to guy" on offense, which he hopes will draw even more defenders into the box and cause defenses to use man-coverage against Nitros speedster Davis, the reigning Pacific League track and field 100- and 200-meters champion.
"Michael Davis is the real deal as far as speed goes," Eberhart says. "If you try and single cover it, we're gonna throw it to him."
And with Norton at the helm, Eberhart believes his team has that option, something that was lacking last year with Yoon almost strictly an option quarterback.
"He's really progressed," said Eberhart of Norton. "He throws a good ball. He gives us something we didn't have last year."
Eberhart is also pleased with the notion of Yoon, who ran for 749 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010, being able to concentrate solely on carrying the ball rather than all the other duties that went with quarterbacking.
"He can do so much," Eberhart said of Yoon, who was a running back as a freshman and sophomore, "he can put a team on his back."
With the offensive core of Norton, Yoon and Davis, Eberhart believes he has a strong nucleus.
"We have a guy who can throw it, we have a guy who can run it and we have a guy who can catch it," Eberhart said.
Up front on the offensive line, there are still some holes to fill, but the Nitros will likely have seniors Kevin Vega and Mike Granillo at the tackle spots, senior Jair Ramos at one of the guard spots and senior Gagik Gabrielyan at center.
Senior Matthew Defrance is likely to start at tight end and senior Muhammad Akhtar and junior Chris Aquino will be the starting wings on offense.
As further repercussion of having such a minute roster, every offensive starter, with the exception of Norton, will play defense.
"It's gonna be really tiring," Yoon said, "but you gotta fight through it."
Yoon and Aquino, at the cornerback spots, and Davis and Akhtar, at the safety positions, will make up the defensive backfield in defensive coordinator Bill Irace's base 4-3 defense — though the team is likely to also show some 5-2 and 4-4 looks.
Senior Luther Bailey, a defensive tackle, is likely to be the only starter on the defensive line that doesn't also start offensively. Bailey will be joined on the D-line by Vega, Ramos and Gabrielyan.
Granillo's set to get a starting nod at linebacker, as well, but the linebacking corps is still very much a question mark.
Ultimately, Eberhart believes the Nitros will suit up around 30 kids for the varsity squad after bringing up some junior varsity players — a move he's not thrilled with at the risk of depleting a JV team that has roughly 35 players.
One player the varsity squad has already brought up is Martin Marin, the JV team's best player, according to Eberhart. Marin will likely see some time at receiver and defensive back, but is being brought up particularly to be the team's kicker. Despite Marin's prowess, Eberhart still has plenty of consternation about the kicking game as a whole.
"Special teams is gonna be an adventure," Eberhart said.
And the adventure is likely to start early, as the Nitros, for the first time ever, will take on the rival Tornadoes to open up the season. It's a game that those at Glendale believe will very much be pivotal to how the season plays out, as the program looks to start winning from the onset and also start growing the program by getting more support in the stands.
"We just gotta go out there with a positive attitude," Yoon said. "[We can't] feel like we're defeated from the start. Because [teams] have more numbers, doesn't mean they have better players."
Of course, keeping those players healthy will be as crucial as ever.
"We can't get hurt, we don't have any depth," said Eberhart of the key to improving this season in the win-loss column. "If we can play some defense, keep those three kids on the field and block some people, we can be OK. We could go 5-5, we could shock some people and be 6-4.
"We proved that this summer."
The summer saw the Nitros, led by Davis, win the Ayala Passing Tournament and make it to the semifinals of the College of the Canyons Tournament, showing, if nothing more, that they have the skill players to compete.
And while most see the low numbers for all their hindrances, Norton, for one, is quick to point out that they have proved at least one positive over the spring and summer months and into the fall.
"I think as a team we're probably closer than any other team," Norton said. "There's less of us, so we're a closer knit team.
"No one is any less valuable than anybody else, we realized that."
Going forward, the Nitros look to change a lot with a little — at least in terms of roster size, anyway. Though the numbers are against him and his team, Eberhart is hoping that from the first game on, these Nitros can change the fortunes of a program on the field and in the stands.
"It's a perfect year to juice it up, to get things going," said Eberhart, whose team has seven games at Moyse Field this year. "We have a pretty good team and, more importantly, a good group of kids who deserve to be supported by their school and their family and their friends."