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New field, hope for Atwater

ATWATER -- Dexter Coward would see them out there every morning, laboring in the summer sun.

Worker bees in long pants and T-shirts, laying rock and moving dirt where grass used to grow at Falcon Field.

"I can't wait to see what it's going to look like when it's all finished," Coward said back in July. "The coaches were joking that it's going to have all kinds of Buhach Colony logos on it."

For most of the summer, Falcon Field -- home to Atwater and BC -- was a construction zone.

Tractors sat in the parking lot and pipes lay strewn about the barren field.

But by opening night, it promises to be the area's classiest football venue.

Falcon Field is getting a million-dollar facelift, including state-of-the-art Sprinturf and all-weather track.

The facilities upgrade follows a hefty purchase of equipment for the weight room.

With all the new and exciting developments going on at Atwater, Coward believes the downtrodden program is ready to turn over a new leaf.

"It's going to be a new beginning for Atwater football," Coward said. "Atwater has been on a down slide for awhile now, but I think we have an opportunity to do something pretty special."

The excitement is amplified by the fact that Atwater High is celebrating its 50th anniversary -- with many of those years spent as a football darling here in Merced County.

"It's all going in a positive direction," said second-year coach Bob Valladao. "Of course, there's an excitement.

"In terms of us as a football team, it's just nice knowing that we're going to have a consistent playing field going into October and November each year."

The product on the field shouldn't be too shabby, either.

Atwater is just 12-28 over the last four years, including 2-8 a season ago, but Valladao returns one the top of 1-2 punches in the Central California Conference.

Quarterback Nathan Sanchez emerged as one of the bright young stars in 2007, taking the reins as a sophomore.

Coward is listed as a running back but could be used in a variety of ways.

"He can run it, throw it and catch it," Sanchez said of his playmaker. "He can do everything. It's fun having him on my team."

That duo will be joined by a group of fresh faces expected to make an immediate impact.

Giovanni Delmaso is a quick receiver with good hands, Angel Molina is expected to challenge for snaps at fullback and Jason Diaz should provide some pop at middle linebacker.

It's all coming together, Valladao believes -- piece by piece.

"We've been talking about what it takes to be a champion -- not in terms of winning but putting out the best effort individually and as a team.

"We can't wait until the season starts. A season is only 10 games, so we need a great effort in the weight room and in the classroom.

"There's a lot to do. It's going to take little steps. We want to have a bunch of little successes around here."

Falcon Field, they hope, is the first of many.