ASTON — On top of everything happening in the world in 2020, tragedy struck the Sun Valley football team.
No high school student should have to experience the death of a best friend and teammate, but the Vanguards have done their very best to cope with their harsh reality.
Tazuan “Taz” Thomas, a rising senior known for his swaggy cleats and infectious, fun-loving personality, died following a car accident in July.
Antonio Rivera was Taz’s best friend. The senior posted a heartfelt tribute on social media, and he, like the rest of the Sun Valley football team, intend to dedicate their football season to Thomas.
“I’m not here for myself, I’m here for him,” Rivera said. “That’s pretty much how all the guys feel. We are in this together and we are playing this year for him.”
The Vanguards will wear stickers on their helmets with Thomas’ number and carry a flag in his name each time they run onto the field. Sun Valley’s shortened season begins Friday at home against Ches-Mont League foe Great Valley. Kickoff is scheduled for 7:30.
“We were there for each other because everybody on the team was really close to Taz,” senior lineman Jake Steinmetz said. “We all stuck together and we have pushed it to motivate us for this season. At the time, when everything got shut down again and we couldn’t practice, it was harder for us because we wanted to be together and that took the distraction away. But we had a lot of group chats and we stuck together through everything. It’s the seniors and the juniors, but it’s really everybody on the team.
“We don’t have the biggest team, but really we are a close family in that sense.”
Coach Greg “Bubba” Bernhardt was heartened by his team’s response to the tragedy. The entire experience has been extremely difficult, but the Vanguards have leaned on each other. Bernhardt mentioned the responsibility he and his coaching staff have to make sure all the players are hanging in there. There is no shame in crying, or feeling blue. Bernhardt made it clear to his players: don’t be afraid to talk or reach out to them.
“He had a colorful personality and all of his teammates loved him,” Bernhardt said. “As a coach, that’s anybody’s worse nightmare. You never want to go hear that anywhere, let alone within your own program. For us as coaches, we just wanted to tell the kids, if you have a bad day, let’s talk about it because we’re here for you. You can’t let that stuff eat at you. We had a lot of conversations with them and we continue to have them.
“I love these kids, They’re so mature in how they handle things and they just sort of rallied around each other. They have dealt with it and talked about it a lot and I think they have grown up a lot because of it. … We want to keep Taz’s memory alive and we know he will be here with us spiritually.”
Unfortunately, life took another drastic turn for senior captain and quarterback Tyler McLaughlin. Just last month he had to say goodbye to his father, Michael, who was known in Aston as one of the most passionate of Sun Valley football fans.
The school is allowing parents and close family members to attend home games this season. McLaughlin will have his mom and sisters in attendance to cheer him on.
“It’s going to be weird, especially not having Taz with us and then also it’s the first game I won’t have my dad with him in my whole entire life,” McLaughlin said. “I know he’ll be watching me, though.”
As for the team’s 2020 outlook, the Vanguards feel they can win every game and compete for a Ches-Mont division title. They’ll have four regular-season weeks with which to try to qualify for the District 1 Class 5A playoffs. Many of SV’s seniors have two years of varsity experience under their belts. Bernhardt said most of his skill players are versatile enough to play multiple positions.
Rivera, for instance, can play wide receiver and running back. McLaughlin will line up at quarterback, but he can also handle reps out of the backfield. Other skill players to watch include senior running back/linebacker Sean Stone and senior wide receiver defensive back Johnny O’Neill
The team’s biggest strength is on the lines. Steinmetz (6-4, 235) is one of the top returning two-way linemen in Delco, who is garnering a lot of college interest. Joining Steinmetz in the trenches are Jake Crowder (6-6, 325), Rob Powell (6-3, 210), Cam Madison (6-5, 215) and junior Travis Powell (6-3, 270). It’s a big and nasty group … and plenty talented.
“Since the season ended last year — and as everyone knows, it was not the best season — we have been so motivated because we knew we had pretty much the whole team coming back. We played a lot of young guys last year,” Steinmetz said. “So, since the moment last season ended, we were back in the weight room and back putting the work in to prepare for this year. That carried all the way until the summer … and even during the time we were shut down, we were finding ways to put the work in. We did not take a step back, we are better. No, we didn’t have a lot of time to practice for the season and we don’t have a scrimmage to play, but we definitely spent a lot of time getting ready. I definitely believe we are ready and I think you guys are going to see that on Friday night.”