FLAGSTAFF — NAU coach Chris Ball called Saturday’s football game against Arizona “a great opportunity to play against a Pac-12 team and showcase their talents in front of their family one more time” for more than 70 Arizona-based players on the Lumberjacks roster.
For the four Lumberjacks who grew up in Southern Arizona, though, Saturday will be a de facto home game, making the trip even more special. Redshirt junior offensive lineman Jonas Leader, for instance, graduated from Canyon del Oro High School.
Leader was part of the NAU team that made the trip to Arizona in 2019, where the Lumberjacks fell 65-41 to the Wildcats in an offensive shootout. There will likely be less nerves this time around, but Leader still said he was excited to play in front of about 10 family members who will be in attendance. However, the awe of playing in a stadium where he used to attend games will wear off quickly, as the Lumberjacks are aiming to capture their first win of the season.
“It’s business when I’m there. I have to have the mindset that it’s just another football game, and prepare like that, but it is really cool,” Leader said.
“I’m familiar with the stadium, the field, the atmosphere, the surrounding parts. But when I’m out there, I have to treat it like a normal game: Not let my highs get too high, or the lows get too low,” added graduate student kicker Luis Aguilar, who has his own reasons to be excited for the road trip.
Aguilar hails from nearby Nogales and was a regular at Wildcats games in his childhood. At one point, he said his family even had season tickets.
Much of his immediate and extended family will make the 45-minute drive to Tucson on Saturday. Aguilar said at least 25 friends and family have already purchased tickets. Each of them will see him live out a childhood dream again.
“It’s honestly really freaking cool because I’ve put myself in that field, when I was going to games, thinking, ‘Man I wish I could play there one day,’ and now to be playing my third and final time there is pretty amazing. I’m going to have a lot of family there, which will make it even more special,” Aguilar said.
Saturday’s game, beside being the Lumberjacks’ lone contest against an in-state opponent this season, is also a chance to play against local talent for the first time in a few years.
In recent seasons, both the Wildcats and Lumberjacks have made concerted efforts to recruit and sign athletes from Arizona. For those who played prep football in the state, Saturday will be another opportunity for athletes to measure up against those they might have played against in years past.
“It’s cool any time you get to go against guys you played in high school and compete at the next level,” Leader said, noting that teams from around the Big Sky have Arizona kids, but that these two rosters in particular are littered with them.
The Lumberjacks will take a bus to Tucson on Friday, staying in a hotel for walkthroughs and game preparation Friday night. Leader and Aguilar said there will be little time for socializing, though they both plan for friends and family to come to their hotel for a few moments to greet them Friday night, once team activities are complete.
They also will likely stick around on the field at Arizona Stadium after the game to visit with loved ones again. The conversations will be even more lively if Northern Arizona can pull off a victory against the FBS opponent.
The upcoming game is exciting for all the in-state athletes, particularly the ones who call southern Arizona home. The goal, Aguilar said, is to enjoy his time there, but not let the moment get too overwhelming.
“At the end of the day I’m just kicking a ball. I do this every day, and I’ve got to treat it like practice or other games. It won’t be extra pressure there, just more special,” Aguilar said.