Mustangs look to build on last season with stability

Gillette News Record

March 4, 2023

The Champions Indoor Football League expanded into Gillette with the Mustangs in 2021. In its first two years, the team has endured ownership change, four head coaches and questions of a split with Gillette.

Now with the stability at ownership, head coach and with the city, the Mustangs hope to reach their full potential in year three.

Many players on the team were not a part of the Mustangs last season. For the ones that were there, last year’s drama is something they are excited to move past. As tough as it was, the Mustangs are through the rough and foresee smooth sailing in Cedrick Walker’s first full year as coach and general manager.

“Coach Cedrick is a funny dude,” offensive lineman Reece Fain said. “He’s one guy who if you’re doing it right, everything is great, laughing. But if you’re not doing it right, he’s going to drop the hammer on you. It’s a great balance, it’s not one of those things where he has an ego. He understands we all have to work together to be great.”

What Fain and the remaining Mustangs might want to bring from last season is the team’s finish. After starting 1-4 in 2022, Walker led the team to a 2-5 record and a close 49-40 loss to the Billings Outlaws in the first round.

“We want to be better than we were last year, that’s a big team goal,” Fain said. “Me coming back and only having (Rashad) Rocket (Ridley) and TP (Toney Peters) back, our goal is not to go 3-7 like we did last year. Our goal is to win a championship.”

Fain said he has some personal vendettas against Sioux City, Billings and Omaha based on last year’s results. Ridley said he’s much more confident in this year’s team, and expects a lot more out of the Mustangs because of it.

While there are key returners who transferred over from last year’s team, there are plenty of new players and coaches making up the first roster Walker has constructed on his own.

Reggie Gray is the team’s new offensive coordinator and assistant head coach. He wants to design his offense around playing fast and explosive. Gray wants to emphasize the little details in everything from film study to execution on the field. Those habits are what makes him believe that the Mustangs can have a potent offense.

“I expect us to be No. 1 in the league,” Gray said. “It’s going to take a lot of hard work and attention to detail, but my expectations are high.

“It all starts with our quarterback and our center. If our quarterback is on point and doing the things he needs to do in order to be successful, our offense is going to rock. We’re going to be a very balanced offense, based on what the teams give us. We’re not going to force things.”

Mike Pina is the team’s quarterback. In his last year in college in 2019, he threw for 21 touchdowns for 2,670 yards along with five rushing touchdowns. This will be his first season with the Mustangs.

Gray, a former wide receiver, spent time in multiple arena football leagues since his college days. Ridley said that Gray’s experience in the various levels of football has made him a smart offensive coordinator who understands concepts and how to attack defenses.

“He’s just a mastermind, so it’s good to learn under someone like that and actually get his point of view,” Ridley said.

One new wrinkle for Gray to develop is the new three- and four-point plays in the point after touchdown. Teams can forgo the one-point PAT kick and even the two-point conversion to attempt for a three-point attempt from five yards out and a four-point attempt from 10 yards out.

The evolution away from kickers toward another play from scrimmage is an opportunity to “trust your offense, trust your players and trust your offensive coordinator,” Walker said when the new rule was announced.

Walker will remain as the team’s de facto defensive coordinator alongside his head coaching duties. He is joined by Brent Taylor who will coach the defensive line.

“Since coach Walker came in mid-season last year, it was a big shuffle,” linebacker Toney Peters said. “I feel like I’ll contribute more this year because last year my season got cut short because I tore my ACL, but now I’m 100% back.”

Having a full season to work with coach Walker has Peters feeling confident that this will be his best season in his professional career. Walker agrees, going so far as to predict Peters to be the league’s defensive player of the year.

“This is going to be my best year yet,” Peters said. “I’ve battled through injuries and I feel like this is the year that I will establish myself and move forward.”

Peters being one of the veterans of the Mustangs as well as the team’s middle linebacker is positioned for a leadership role both defensively and in the team as a whole. He wants to win, and thinks the team has the added talent and previous experience to win a lot of games.

The Mustangs have won five games across their two-year existence. But they’ve never been able to focus exclusively on the football side of things. Wide receiver Karonce Higgins said he thinks other teams might overlook the Mustangs as there are a lot of new players to the team and the league. The team loves its underdog status and wants to shock the league this year.

“People aren’t going to look into us as much, so once we go out there and show them what we’re about, it’ll be too late,” Higgins said.

Higgins is one of the Mustangs’ new players. He isn’t just new to the team, he’s new to arena ball in general. This has allowed a lot of players to come together and bond as they traverse new experiences,"

“There are a lot of new guys here, so everyone is trying to get everybody together,” Fain said. “It’s honestly been like a brotherhood. A lot of people say it’s a brotherhood, but this really just feels like we’re a bunch of bros playing ball and hanging out after.”

The Mustangs begin their season Saturday, March 4 in an away matchup against the Southwest Kansas Storm. The team’s first home game won’t come until March 25 against the Sioux City Bandits.