Crusaders at the big kids’ table

Transition is nothing new for Faith Lutheran football coach Jake Kothe.

He was on the Crusaders’ staff when the team ascended from Class 1A to 2A in 1998 and was head coach when it climbed to 3A in 2004.

But Faith Lutheran will take its biggest leap yet this season.

Not only will the school complete its rapid rise to 4A, but it also will join a Northwest League packed with perennial football powers such as Palo Verde, Cheyenne and Cimarron-Memorial.

Are the Crusaders ready?

“It’s time,” said Kothe, entering his ninth year as head coach. “The school is ready; we’re ready. The time is now for us to do this. The nice thing about the school is, the parents and kids really supported (the move), so we’ve had a great commitment.”

Thursday marked the first day of noncontact practices for area teams. Contact drills will begin Monday, with scrimmages scheduled Aug. 22. The first full slate of Friday games is Aug. 28.

Even after going 0-3 in the 3A Southern League last season, the Crusaders aren’t looking to be simply average in their maiden voyage in 4A.

“We actually came in with the mindset that we’re here to win state,” said junior linebacker/tight end Brett Lubbe, who had 78 tackles last season. “We’re not here to make the jump from 3A to 4A, we’re not here to have a good season. We’re here to try to win a state title.”

Faith Lutheran fizzled after a 4-1 start last year, finishing 5-5. But the Crusaders boasted talent, most notably defensive back David Sperry, the program’s second player to sign with Navy in as many years.

“We want to show everybody in our community that we can play 4A,” said A.J. Finlayson, a senior receiver/defensive back who also will moonlight in the offensive backfield. “There’s a couple people talking about us that we can’t really play 4A. That’s not true.”

Kothe said the Crusaders have had a good turnout, with roughly 45 players in the weight room most of the summer.

The headliner could be 6-foot-2-inch junior quarterback Joe Portaro, who threw for 2,020 yards and 20 touchdowns as a sophomore. His favorite target is junior receiver Don Pearson, who caught 74 balls for 1,032 yards and 12 TDs.

“Joe, he played very well as a sophomore,” Kothe said. “We’ve really pushed him and challenged him to not be satisfied with that and not just rest on that, but let’s get better and grow from that and get better at picking up some reads and making better decisions.”

One key question facing the Crusaders is their running game, which averaged only 73 yards a game last season. Kothe said Faith Lutheran will continue to run a spread offense but has made improvements to its ground attack.

“We’ve really worked on our run game this spring and summer,” he said. “So we feel good about making strides in that area. But the passing game will be a big part of it with the weapons we have.”

The defense will blend from a 4-3 to a 5-2 front, Kothe said.

Faith Lutheran opens the season Sept. 4 at Legacy. Four of the Crusaders’ first six games are on the road, but they sound undaunted.

“My team’s ready to come out and fight,” Portaro said. “We’re all ready.”