By Laura Colvin
Kuna Melba News editor
With summer winding to a close the first game of the football season is just around the corner for the Kuna Kavemen, and the excitement for a big turn-around is mounting.
And it’s all centered on the attitude and energy new head coach Lee Leslie brings to the team.
A veteran coach heading into his inaugural season with the Kavemen, Leslie knows he’s got his work cut out for him, yet remains undaunted.
Kuna last went to the state tournament in 2007, but lost in the first round. It’s been downhill ever since.
In 2008 and 2009, Kuna amassed a 3-15 record. In 2010, Rusty Frisch took over for Dave Beymer as head coach but did not find success, going 2-16 over two seasons before resigning in January.
“We’ve got to go from worst to first and that’s a heck of a climb,” said Leslie. “This is a really good group of kids to coach. They’re very hungry to have direction. They love organization, and having goals set for them. I’m excited; I think it’s going to be a good season for us.”
With a record-breaking 70 names on the roster, Leslie is leaning on several returning players, as well as some new faces. Key returning players include senior Cody Johnson, who’s back at center, along with senior wide receiver Steven Doughty and junior running back/defensive back Spencer Trautman.
Senior Kayden Votroubek, who spent last year playing wide receiver and defensive back, moves under center for his first stab at playing quarterback.
How Votroubek learns on the fly will go a long way toward offensive improvement for the Kavemen, who averaged less than a touchdown per game a year ago.
“He’s our guy,” said Leslie, noting Votroubek has never taken a snap on any level. “It’s all going to revolve around him and how well he can pick things up.”
Leslie thinks he may have discovered a hidden gem in senior receiver Triston Youngblood, a 6-foot-2, 195-pound burner.
“He’s one of the fastest kids in the state,” Leslie said. “The kid can just fly; he’s got a Division I body. With him and Doughty, we’ve got really fast receivers. Landon Croft is another good route-running receiver. Randy Emery as fullback is a good runner in the backfield.”
A key to any turnaround will come, Leslie knows, on the defensive side of the ball. A year ago, Kuna gave up more than 29 points a game and finished next to last in defense. Leslie said his defense, which gave up some 374 yards per game a year ago, has to learn to respect what opposing offenses can do.
“Our defensive backs can’t get beaten over the top,” Leslie said. “We want to bend, but not break. You want to make high school teams use 18-play drives to try and beat you, because most high school teams are going to make mistakes.”
While there are some returning players and some new talent among the upperclassmen, the Kavemen are also drawing on substantial numbers from the sophomore class.
“It’s a young team, heavy on the sophomore class and talent,” Leslie said. “We’ll see how much leadership we get out of the senior class and how far we can go with it.”
They’re off to a good start.
Last week—even with blown-in wildfire smoke trapped in the valley and temperatures topping out near 100 degrees every day—Leslie, along with more than 120 freshman, junior varsity and varsity players, a small army of assistant coaches and parent supporters, spent five days camping out near the football field.
The week involved football drills and conditioning, but was focused, Leslie said, on bonding, team building and character building, all culminating in a midnight “sacred ceremony” on the football field.
“We had candlelight service and made some promises to each other,” he said. “We’re going to be big boys throughout the season. We’re going to make good decisions. Showing respect to women is one of our top priorities. I feel like if a man can respect a woman, he’s going to be a lot better man. We’re focusing on those kinds of things. We really didn’t talk about how many games we were going to win, or anything like that the rest of the night.”
For many, it was an emotional night.
“I asked them about what they wanted in the future, and every one of them talked about their manhood, not wins and losses,” Leslie said. “That’s exactly where I want my guys. The wins and losses will take care of themselves; they always have in the past.”
The proof is in his track record. In 27 years coaching football, Leslie has won 17 championships and numerous Coach of the Year awards. His experience includes a stint as head coach of the defunct Boise Burn of the Arena Football League, and most recently as head coach at Bishop Kelly, where his teams went 20-2 overall, including a perfect 12-0 in 2010. He was named SIC 4A football coach of the year both seasons before leaving the post in January 2011.
After signing on with Kuna last year, he spent most of the summer working with all three high school teams as well as conducting a youth camp, and last week’s sleepover camp.
And now, as the season begins, comes the test.
Playing among strong competition, Leslie said he intends to approach every game the same way: One at a time.
“We’ve got a brutal schedule; we’ll face some tough teams,” he said, noting the first five games, especially, will be trial-by-fire for the Kavemen. “They’re big-time teams; three are ranked or will be ranked, and I respect all the coaches. The new staff at Nampa will do a great job. The new guy at Emmett will do a great job. The only one I don’t know much about is Mountain Home. He’s a mystery to me.”
“I’ve never lost to any of these teams,” Leslie said. “But Kuna hasn’t beaten too many of them. When you try to turn the worm in a program like this, you’ve got to get everybody to believe in it and the only way you do that is to start getting some games under your belt, getting in some adversity, and seeing how fast you can pull out of it. We’ve got to see how patient we’re going to be. We’ve got to see if we’re going to panic when we get a loss. We have to see how we’re going to respond to everything. Adversity is what teaches life, so we’re teaching life so we’re ready for any adversity.”
He’s a coach who knows a little something about adversity. He said his mom passed away the day he was born, and his father “was MIA the rest of my life.” He and his brothers and sister spent more than two years in an orphanage before grandparents found them.
The siblings excelled in sports and, Leslie said, “our coaches were the ones who kind of pushed all the buttons and got us dialed in.”
“I wanted to pass that on,” he said. “I’m in a community where a lot of kids only have one parent home, so I feel like I’m in the right spot to do some good, hard character building and teach these kids some good things.”
He’ll begin to find out what his players have learned when they kick off 2012 Friday at Minico, then play their first home game a week later against Nampa.
On Friday, Sept. 21, the Kavemen will kick off against Leslie’s old squad from Bishop Kelly.
“I love the kids at BK,” he said. “I love the parents and the community support there. We’ve got to beat them, because it’s a football game, but I’ll be rooting for them in every other game but ours.
“With what I’ve seen since I’ve been here, wins are not even my first objective,” Leslie said. “I want to teach these kids how to be good young men. The wins will follow.”
The Kuna Football Boosters are promoting a “black out” for home games and ask all fans to wear Kuna black at home.
Road games will be “white out” games.
“We’ll make our presence known at football games this year as we support this new era of Kuna High football,” said Football Boosters president Mike Spengler, noting schedules, scores, video, and photos, as well as the new Kuna football apparel, are available at www.kunafootball.com.