Sunnyslope football

Sunnyslope football huddles up before a hot preseason practice.

None of the current roster was on campus for what could be considered the recent “glory days” of Sunnyslope Viking football. From 2013-15, the Vikings had an overall record of 32-4 and were high playoff seeds in each postseason.

Playing a tough schedule and ravaged by injuries to many key starters and contributors, the Vikings went 5-6 in 2018 and exited in the first round of the playoffs. This season, though, the Vikings believe they can turn their record around.

“We’re looking to surprise some teams this year. We’re always an underdog, and we’re coming out to fight,” senior quarterback Niko Haen said.

Sunnyslope seems to have taken strongly to that “underdog” identity, as the players understand recent history and are motivated by a chance to play many of the same opponents again this year.

“We want to get revenge on some of these teams we lost to last season; that’s a big goal of ours,” Haen said.

It is not as if talent level has dipped in recent years, either. Coach Damon Pieri, rather, said the number of skilled players has remained the same from seasons past, but the schedule has simply gotten more difficult. Each of the Vikings’ six losses last season came to 5A playoff teams, including three to the teams in the state championship game — two losses to Centennial and one to Notre Dame Prep, which went undefeated in the regular season.

Even still, the self-imposed idea of Sunnyslope as David compared to the Goliaths of the 5A conference remains strong.

“You look around and you can see we don’t have overall tremendous team speed, we don’t have huge size, so we’ve just got to grind out wins and practice hard and do it that way,” Pieri said.

Where the team looks to be incredibly strong, though, is on offense, led by the passing combination of Haen and brother/receiver David Haen. Replacements have come in on the offensive line to take the spots of several past starters that graduated this summer, but the skill positions could prove among the best in the region.

On the other end, Sunnyslope flipped nearly the entire defensive starting lineup, according senior defensive lineman Kaden Taylor. There is no way to fully simulate game speed and pressure, but facing a slew of talented offensive players on a daily basis is about as close as the new defense can ask for.

Pieri describes the situation as “sink or swim” for the new defenders, and they seem to be catching on day by day.

“I think going up against D1 guys like Niko and David, we’re going against the best every day, and that is the best way to prepare for other teams,” Taylor said.

While the talent spread across the landscape of Glendale and Peoria district football seems to have only gotten stronger, the Vikings hope a solid performance can push them into the conversation as one of the area’s top teams.

The players have something to prove, and Pieri believes in them, as well.

“You never know how the football season is going to play out,” Pieri said. “But, if things go right, I think we can be pretty good.”