Paul Elvira stood on the sidelines, soaking it all in.
Marcos de Niza’s star wide receiver was a freshman three years ago, one who made the varsity football roster but tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the seventh game.
While he couldn’t play in the 2009 5A Division II semifinals, Elvira had the best viewpoint of anyone as Marcos de Niza shocked three-time defending champion Peoria Centennial, 16-14. It was a defensive battle and a result that wasn’t decided until an interception in the end zone with seconds remaining.
Marcos de Niza lost the championship game to Chaparral a week later, but the experience left an indelible mark on Elvira.
For the past two seasons, the Padres lost in the state quarterfinals, first to Centennial by a touchdown, then last year to Vail Cienega by a point.
Following last season’s early exit, Elvira was determined not to let it happen again, and he told coach Roy Lopez soon after the game that he would do everything in his power to re-create that playoff run.
“Watching all those seniors beat Centennial — the No. 4 team in the nation — that was amazing,” Elvira said. “I wanted that moment.”
Friday’s game was the first step.
Running back Mauriece Lee ran for 320 yards, Elvira had 132 receiving yards and the defense picked off five passes as Marcos de Niza knocked off three-time defending champion Chaparral, 49-36, in the Division II quarterfinals.
Next up is Tucson Ironwood Ridge on Friday, the only team to beat the Padres in the regular season. A victory would send Marcos de Niza to its second title game in four years as it aims for the school’s first football championship.
“Right now we’re playing top-level football, and we knew we could get here,” cornerback Priest Willis said. “We just wondered when. Now that we’re here, it’s very scary. Our offense is moving the ball fast, our defense is flying around. Now that we’re close to state and we’re hungry for it, there’s nothing to stop us.”
In recent years, the Marcos de Niza senior class would treat the underclassmen as, well, underclassmen.
Like in many facets of high school life, there was a developed hierarchy. Lopez said this year’s seniors have a different tone.
“In the past, our seniors have been really, really hard on the underclassmen,” he said. “But these guys knew we would need the younger guys.”
So it’s more of a family feel at Marcos de Niza these days, where the Padres not only have the talent to succeed, but also the belief in each other to do so.
“We need everybody in order to get where we want to go, which is state,” Willis said. “It’s more than about just a few of us. We want the underclassmen to feel like this is their team, too.”
There may not be a more important younger player than junior quarterback Josh Eckley. He is 119-of-187 for 2,459 yards passing with 25 touchdowns and four interceptions on the season and has rushed for 500 more yards.
His ability to make plays with his arms and legs gives defenses fits.
But it’s really the seniors that make this team go. Elvira and Lee are both committed to play for Arizona next year and gave Chaparral an up-close view of their abilities last week.
Willis is the top-rated recruit in the East Valley while Richie Becerra is the team’s emotional leader on the line.
There are comparisons to that 2009 team, with its balanced offense and strong defense, and this year’s squad would love to follow that blueprint.
This time, though, Elvira wants to take it a step further. He remembers the jubilation of winning the semifinal game but also the heart-wrenching championship game loss.
A state title “would mean the world to us,” Elvira said. “This team has been through so much. Everybody who comes to the games doesn’t know what we’ve been through. We play for each other. I can’t wait to cry tears of joy, hopefully, if we win it.”