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  • Tigers players gather during practice at Erie High School on...

    Richard M. Hackett/Times-Call

    Tigers players gather during practice at Erie High School on Monday.

  • Senior Jose Valdez warms up with teammates during football practice...

    Richard M. Hackett/Times-Call

    Senior Jose Valdez warms up with teammates during football practice at Erie High School on Monday.

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ERIE — If you asked Erie football coach Larry Gartrell to stand at practice and point to one or two players that will make or break the Tigers’ season, he couldn’t do it.

Last year, the decision would have made itself. At 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Erie’s Justin Godfrey was conference defensive player of the year. But no player like him will be there for this go-around.

Without an overwhelming player on offense or defense, the Tigers, more than ever, are gathering behind a team philosophy.

“It’s just a bunch of average teenagers out here working hard,” Gartrell said.

The Tigers graduated 16 starters after last season, and as many as six sophomores could start in their places. Most of the Tigers’ juniors have limited varsity experience as well. And they’re undersized across the board.

Senior cornerback Rafael Batrez, 5-8, 170, is one of five returning starters. He said the Tigers will have to learn on the fly and work hard to help each other out against the bigger backs they’ll face.

“Last year we had a lot of bigger guys and this year we’re pretty small,” Batrez said. “If the ball goes outside, we better get to the ball in case he doesn’t go down or breaks a tackle. That’s just what we’re gonna have to do: get 11 guys to the ball.”

Having made a commitment to the double-wing attack since 2005, the Tigers are more prepared to manage this year’s undersized and youthful roster on the offensive side.

“It was a good fit with our philosophy, to have a ground-control-type offense and be able to run the ball,” Gartrell said. “It became real clear, real quick, that the double-wing is a team-type offense. Everybody has to do their job.”

Over the years, the Tigers have had good kids and good athletes, but maybe not that one great tailback. If the double-wing is run properly, the Tigers can plug in any capable player and it works.

In 2010, the Tigers had two 1,000-yard rushers — Zach Chambers and Levi Hammett — who split carries on the left and right. Chambers and Hammett graduated, but the Tigers are planning on filling their spots, as they have always done. But this year it could take as many as six or seven backs.

“I think we could plug any of our guys in there and get the same result,” Gartrell said.

The Tigers aren’t expecting to regularly break off big gains, but double-team defensive linemen and run for short yardage to wear down the opposition. In that regard, their need for a share-the-load attack could become a strength.

Junior Pedro Anderson, who is 5-7, will provide an extra runner at the quarterback spot. Junior Ryne Atkins and sophomore Joe Ramey will be among a stable of backs in heavy rotation.

“We don’t have one or two guys like that,” Atkins said. “If we need the extra yards, or we’re gonna win the game, it’s gonna be as a team. We need to find the best 11 guys on the field and we have to actually push. It’s going to take all of us this year, especially on offense.”

The Tigers’ backs hope their smaller size will help them out-quick defenders. And they’re embracing the role of the diminutive underdog.

“It makes our heads and our hearts bigger,” Ramey said.

Erie lost to Cañon City in the first round of the 3A state tournament last season, its first year up from 2A. By reaching state, they’ve demystified their 2A upstart mystique.

The Tigers’ team mentality will be tested when they face defending 3A champion Elizabeth, ranked preseason No. 1 in the Denver Post media poll, in their home opener on Friday.

Brad Cochi can be reached at bcochi@times-call.com.

ERIE TIGERS

Coach: Larry Gartrell, 16th year (88-75)

Last year: 7-4, 3-2 in Northern Conference; lost in first round of 3A state playoffs

Returning starters: Pedro Anderson (Jr., RB/DB, 5-7, 150); Rafael Batrez (Sr., RB/DB, 5-8, 170); Brendan Pena (Sr., TE/LB, 5-10, 160); Matthew Roper (Sr., RB/LB, 6-1, 200); Jose Valdez (Sr., OL/DL, 5-10, 200)

Others to watch: Ryne Atkins (Jr., RB/DB, 5-10, 165); Connor Conilogue (Jr., OL/DL, 5-10, 195); Tyler David (Jr., OL/DL, 5-10, 170); Taylor Dudley (Sr., RB/LB, 6-0, 160); Ryan Hardin (Jr., OL/LB, 5-10, 180); Brendan Tow (Sr., TE/DL, 5-11, 170); Justin Vang (Sr., RB/LB, 5-4, 115)

Must-see game: Oct. 21 vs. Berthoud (at Tiger Stadium)

Strengths: This season the Tigers will rely on their team cohesiveness and work ethic, which they see as their greatest strengths. The Tigers also have good quickness and a double-wing offensive running attack that will utilize a plethora of tailbacks.

Weaknesses: The Tigers are undersized up and down the roster in 2011. They lack depth at many positions and overall team speed. They have many returning players learning new positions and will have to fill in around them with young and inexperienced newcomers.

SCHEDULE

Sept. 2 — ELIZABETH, 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 9 — at Holy Family, 7 p.m.

Sept. 16 — FORT MORGAN, 7 p.m.

Sept. 23 — at Frederick, 7 p.m.

Sept. 30 — FORT LUPTON, 7 p.m.

Oct. 6 — at Skyline, 7 p.m.

Oct. 14 — SILVER CREEK, 7 p.m.

Oct. 21 — BERTHOUD, 7 p.m.

Oct. 28 — at Roosevelt, 7 p.m.

Nov. 3 — at Mountain View, 7 p.m.

Note: Home games in all caps; home stadium Tiger Stadium

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