By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Four games in, Montgomery’s dream season was on the verge of unraveling. The undefeated record, the revitalization of Monty football after three years of losing — all of it was in jeopardy when starting quarterback Elijah Higgs left the field in an ambulance with a separated shoulder at Casa Grande on Sept. 27.
Montgomery coach Dean Haskins could feel the nervousness as his team waited for the next move.
He summoned his backup quarterback, junior RJ Flores, and asked him if he was ready.
“Coach,” Flores answered, “I’ve been waiting for this for years.”
“He’s not lacking for confidence,” Haskins said with a laugh last Thursday as his team trickled out to the field for a night practice on the Montgomery campus.
Flores isn’t lacking for admirers, either, now that he has been guiding the Vikings offense for a few weeks. His passing touch and contagious confidence have Haskins’ team believing once again that it’s headed for a playoff run.
Flores is a different sort of kid, an entertaining mix of cockiness and candor who seems to be enjoying his opportunity immensely.
Asked why he didn’t play football until he was a freshman at Montgomery, Flores answered: “I was always like a crybaby through elementary school. My dad was kind of hard-nosed. He said if you’re gonna play, you’re not gonna be a crybaby. So I finally manned up by high school.”
Flores was immediately drawn to the quarterback position as a freshman.
“I was too unathletic to play anywhere else,” he said.
Unfortunately, he knew virtually nothing of playing this sport.
“When I first started playing football, I didn’t even know what a read was,” Flores said. “They told me, ‘Play Madden (video games), because then you’ll find some coverages and see what’s going on.’ And the more I’ve been playing, the easier it’s becoming to read a defense.”
Flores backed up Higgs (who is a grade ahead of him) as a JV freshman and started as a sophomore. This year he found himself on the bench again. He got significant practice reps at QB, but few with the first team.
“I hated it,” Flores admitted. “It sucked backing him up.”
Haskins said Flores did what he could with the role, though, working hard to run the offensive scout team. When he got his chance, he ran with it.
Not that it was easy. Flores threw a long touchdown pass to star receiver Etienne Ezeff early in his relief effort against Casa Grande, but struggled in the second half of a game the Vikings lost 30-12.
A week later, Montgomery had to play at Cardinal Newman, a team that had beaten the Vikings three straight times. Flores’ numbers weren’t very showy in that game, but Haskins was impressed with the quarterback’s poise as Montgomery pulled off a 31-25 upset.
“The Newman game, we kind of scaled back things that we wanted to do, just because we weren’t sure how RJ was going to react on that kind of stage,” Haskins said. “And then we went into the Rancho Cotate game, and we all talked, and we said, ‘You know what? If we’re gonna grow as a team and RJ is gonna be our guy, this is the game that we need to kind of let him spread his wings a little bit.’ And he responded very well to that.”
It’s unclear whether Higgs can return this season, or what his role will be if he can. He is due to visit with doctors today.
Flores’ statistics in his first two games running the offense: 28 attempts, 18 completions, 200 yards, no touchdowns, two interceptions. His statistics in consecutive victories over Rancho and Ukiah: 38 attempts, 24 completions, 327 yards, six touchdowns, no interceptions.
“The Ukiah game, we’d call a play, and we’d think about maybe another play, and RJ would say, ‘No, I got this. Don’t worry.’ … With our trust in him, he’s gaining trust in us.”
“I want to pass every down,” Flores said.
He has good size at 6-foot-4, 185 pounds, and he throws a pretty deep ball. Flores has plenty of offensive weapons at his disposal, too, including halfback Logan Francavilla, who is likely to surpass 1,000 yards in Monty’s game against Santa Rosa on Friday, and receivers Ezeff and Justin Eatmon. Where Flores has improved the most, according to Haskins, is in the less tangible aspects of playing quarterback — things like communication in the huddle and getting teammates to elevate their game.
“The way he carries himself,” Haskins said. “He’s got a little bit of a swagger to him.”
Just enough to try a coach’s patience at times. Haskins also happens to be the Montgomery baseball coach, and he’ll have Flores, a third baseman and pitcher, in the spring, too.
“Unless we drive each other crazy first,” Haskins said.
A few more wins for Vikings football should eliminate that possibility.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org.