Every team has a story, but many of them at this level never get told. Every team has a story, but many of them end prematurely before the true story ever unfolds. That could have been the Kalvary Lions’ story, but it isn’t.
The Lions kicked off operations in 2017 and went winless, 0-10, with only 19 players on their roster. At this level, an 0-3, sometimes even an 0-2 start, has been known to cause new teams to fold like a cheap table. It happens every year. However, the Lions didn’t and they have since really started to see the fruit of their faithfulness and perseverance.
“We lost all 10 games that year, but we created an atmosphere built on heart, commitment, and pride,” Lions owner Benjamin Williams told Developmental Football USA. “Because of that, we were able to bring in top coaches and we had a 40-plus man roster in 2018.”
Last year, the Lions went 6-6 and competed with some of the state’s top teams, but weren’t able to close the deal and seal a win in multiple close games. Kalvary went on to make the playoffs for the first time in their young history before being knocked out, but not before giving the then-top ranked Pheonix Phantoms more than they asked for in a 6-0 dogfight.
“We were missing some key components to make a championship run and win against the top teams,” Williams said. “On the offensive side of the ball, we lacked offensive line depth as well as consistency at the quarterback position.”
Those holes have been filled and the Lions roar into 2019 ranked No. 2 in our Arizona Cactus Football League Pre-Season Rankings, boasting a roster more than 50 strong.
“Our expectation is to get better every week,” Williams said. “We already can compete at a high level, so we believe if we get better each week, we will be in position to win every game and that will put us where want to be which is the first AZCFL champion. It doesn’t happen without progression.”
Williams attributed a large part of their progress from 2017 to 2018 to their solid defense, which returns its core again this year, as well as a few new faces.
Just like a building is only as strong as its foundation, a football team is only as strong as their lines and that’s where it starts for the Lions’ defense.
“Our defensive line is the heart and soul of this team,” Williams said. “Vonnie Davis, Clay Monks, Holdin Holyoak, Joe Soto, Amahad Marian and Darrin Anderson all give our defensive line a versatility that is difficult for most offenses to match up against.”
Behind that fiery unit awaits the leader of the defense in linebacker Brian “Hoss” Hoskins.
“He’s around every tackle,” Williams said. “He plays the position with that old school mindset. He really sets the tone for the mentality our defense has.”
Leading the secondary is defensive back Tyree Taylor.
“Tyree is one of the best defenders in the league,” Williams said. “He’s a sure tackler and a ball hawk. He’s been working all off-season. You will see his name surrounding Defensive Player of the Year this year.”
Offensively, Kalvary should be able to open up their playbook quite a bit more with the addition of quarterback Skylar Shearer.
“This guy’s football IQ is through the roof and his work ethic is unmatched,” Williams said. “We are going to shock a lot of people this season and a lot of it will be behind the arm of this man.”
Joining Shearer in the backfield is veteran running back Anthony “A.D.” Dickson, who led the state in rushing for the last four or five seasons, Williams said.
“He did it last year, missing five games,” Williams said. “I could talk about speed, vision, his God-given ability, but what makes this guy special is his heart. He’s endured more in his 31 years than most do in a lifetime and it gives him an edge that most people can’t reach.”
Leading the group of wideouts is Reggie Heath, who has been with the Lions since Day 1.
“He has the ability to be a top threat at receiver in this league, he just hasn’t had a quarterback with the ability to spread the ball around,” Williams said. “Coming off an ACL injury, I believe he will have a chip on his shoulder this season.”
With more pieces in place and more time to mesh together and mature, the Lions look to stake their tent much higher up the AZCFL pecking order this year.
“Championship caliber teams at any level have common characteristics: talented rosters, commitment to the goal and belief in the system,” Williams said. “That’s what it will take to raise that trophy come May.”
But, it won’t come easy. It never does.
The AZCFL features several powerful teams, including last year’s Arizona Gridiron Football League Champion, the Southwest Stampede, which could be even better this year than they were in 2018 with some key new additions of their own.
“Obviously, the Stampede are the team to beat, being the defending champs, but I think the Phoenix Outlaws will be tough as they were a couple of years ago,” Williams said. “The Central Valley Sergeants were just a couple of pieces away from being a contender last year, so I expect them to be a Top 5 team come playoff time. The Phoenix Phantoms are always a tough game for anyone as well. It should be a fun, competitive year.”
A strong marketing push quickly got the AZCFL on the map nationally at this level, but the brand is only as strong as its teams and Arizona is home to several good ones.
“I believe in what this league is trying to accomplish,” Williams said. “It’s not an easy task to try and elevate players from semi-pro leagues, but it’s possible and I think they are taking the right approach. The biggest thing is growing the brand so that this is the most competitive league in the country. That’s what will help propel guys,. high level competition, and I think they are doing just that.
“I believe this is one of the more competitive leagues in the country. Having 15 teams, you’re going to have a couple with lower numbers and they will struggle to compete, but overall, I’d say we have five or six teams that couple compete with top teams from around the country.”
With multiple tough teams in the hunt, it makes every game that much more important, and after humbly climbing from the league cellar two seasons ago, the Lions aren’t overlooking anyone.
“I had a coach during my fight career that used to say my most important fight is my next one,” Williams said. “That’s how I see this schedule. Our next game is the most important game on our schedule. It just so happens that we open the season against the defending champs, Southwest Stampede.
“It’s a little bit of a rivalry game. I played there the year before I started the Lions and our coaches came from there as well as a few of our players, so it’s always a little more competitive when you’re going up against friends and former teammates, but we will treat it as any game, which is one we have to win.”