APPLE VALLEY • Things started out smoothly for Justin Price in his first year as the Granite Hills head football coach.
Coming off a two-win campaign in 2007, the Cougars shut out their first two opponents — Rubidoux 42-0 and Pacific 30-0.
But they had to face reality from there. After Summit shut them down 24-0, they didn't win a game for the rest of the season, finishing 2-8 once again.
"We were happy we started out on fire," Price said. "We thought we were doing the right thing, but I also think we got a little complacent. ... We ran into Summit and we learned the lesson the hard way, unfortunately."
It didn't help that the Desert Sky League featured some of its toughest competition in years. Barstow, Silverado and Burroughs tied for first, and Victor Valley, which went 0-19 in the previous two years, showed a signs of revival and defeated the Cougars 20-0.
But Price and his players are looking to prove that they have turned the program around.
"We are heading in the right direction," Cougars senior Bryce Quigley said. "Last year, we were in every game we played. Just the small mistakes that kept us from winning. We were in every game so there's no doubt this year we are going to win more games."
Last year, the new coaches didn't have much time to prepare for the season after they arrived at Granite Hills in May. This offseason, however, the Cougars have spent a significant amount of time in the weight room.
For example, Quigley, who was listed at 215 pounds on last year's roster, has added 25 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame according to this year's roster. Quigley has verbally committed to play football at San Diego State next season.
"(Price) added a whole new aspect," Quigley said. "We've been in the weight room. He's been pushing us in the weight room really hard to get stronger and stronger. We've been just working really hard on the field and eliminating small mistakes."
Teams who saw Granite Hills in summer passing leagues were impressed by the improvements, too. The Cougars took 16th out of 38 teams at the Santa Fe passing tournament, facing elite teams like Wilson/Long Beach and Serrano.
"They've got talent," Victor Valley coach Leland Eudy said about the Cougars.
While Granite Hills lost some key players from a defense that kept the team in many games last season, it has players returning on an offense that struggled to score consistently.
Senior James Lovato, who completed 112 of 195 attempts for 1,558 yards in 2008 and broke the school record for passing yards in a game, will return at quarterback. Senior wide receiver Joey Lopez caught 31 passes for 357 yards last year — second only to Quigley's 681 yards on 40 catches. And last year's leading rusher Antawuan Jones is only a junior.
"We've got to have the ball bounce our way sometimes," Price said. "Last year, that did not happen. It never bounced our way. And to be honest with you, I honestly think that the harder you work, the more that happens. And I think we put the time and the work in this offseason.
"We have a core group of seniors, about 20 guys that were here from basically the last week of November when the season ended until now, that have been working four days a week. They had one thing on their mind and that's having a successful senior season."
Since the school opened in 1999, the most victories a Granite Hills football program has had in a season is four. Price hesitates to say how many games they'll win this year. But he's certain about one thing:
"If anything, we are going to be better," Price said. "I know we are going to be better. We are going to improve every year. That's my goal."
Tomoya Shimura can be reached at email@example.com