The Mesa High football team’s run to the Class 5A Division I state championship game in 2009 is still the standard among recent Cinderella stories.
The unassuming Jackrabbits used a solid defense, difficult schedule and enough big plays to shock the East Valley that year, making it all the way to University of Phoenix Stadium before getting beaten by Hamilton.
More recently it has been the usual powerhouse suspects fighting for the gold ball, but Week 7 proved once again that this year is more parity-fueled than usual.
This time, it was Highland and Mountain View who took center stage. The Hawks entered Friday night’s game against Desert Mountain as underdogs, but got big plays from its defense and a surprising amount of firepower from its running game to knock off the undefeated Wolves.
The Toros notched their fifth consecutive victory by clamping down on No. 6 Red Mountain’s passing game and won 10-7 in overtime.
Over in Chandler, Hamilton had a decisive victory over Desert Vista — its fifth straight win — and the Huskies are asserting their dominance in the East Valley once again. But even if they do make it to the finals, they can only take one spot.
Through three-quarters of a season’s worth of play, it seems likely that Brophy, Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe, Chandler or Desert Ridge will be the team that faces the Huskies for the championship.
But the door may be left the tiniest bit open for a Cinderella to crash the party.
For it to happen, there are three keys:
Avoid Hamilton: Mesa couldn’t have done it without some blind luck. If the Jackrabbits faced off with the Huskies in the quarterfinals, their run would not have happened. If teams like Highland, Mountain View, Desert Mountain, Pinnacle or Avondale Westview are in the same bracket as the Huskies, their chances of making it all the way to the championship game are slim to none.
Get the right matchups: Mountain View and Highland both got demolished by Desert Ridge, but in games against Red Mountain and Basha, respectively, they competed from start to finish. The computer-based power rankings give some teams easy draws and others tough ones. If a Cinderella can get an easy first-round matchup and then manageable contests in the next two, there’s your recipe for success.
Believe: When Highland played Desert Ridge earlier this year, Hawks coach Pete Wahlheim knew before the game started that his team was flat. The Hawks have played inspired ball and their confidence is growing. Mountain View, too, is feeling good.
It’s going to be a longshot for a non-traditional power to make a deep run in Division I this year because of the strength among the top six teams.
But it’s not impossible.
There are no marquee matchups, as many of the top teams get cupcakes. However, there are some interesting second-tier games. Highland and Mountain View will face off in a matchup of upstarts. Basha (Div. I) and Perry (Div. II) play each other as both are jockeying for playoff positioning. The Bears lost this matchup last year amidst a three-game skid, but rebounded to make the Division I semifinals.
Queen Creek rolled again this week. Can Poston Butte give the undefeated Bulldogs some competition? Skyline has a decent shot at making the playoffs but needs a win over Gilbert to boost those chances.
Jalen Brown, Mountain Pointe: The wide receiver/defensive back had a down year as a sophomore after exploding onto the scene as a freshman on varsity in 2010. He’s been fantastic this season, with arguably the best game of his career coming Friday against Corona del Sol. Brown had seven catches for 251 yards and four touchdowns, including 193 yards at halftime.
Hamilton: The Huskies have righted the ship. After an 0-2 start, Hamilton has reeled off five consecutive wins, including double-digit victories over Chandler, Desert Ridge and Desert Vista. The offense still isn’t super explosive, but as long as the Huskies can run to set up the pass, take care of the ball and lean on their defense, they should be fine.
Queen Creek: No, the schedule hasn’t been very tough, but the Bulldogs continue to impress. They reeled off a third consecutive shutout in a 48-0 win over Higley on Friday and now have blanked five opponents in seven games. Queen Creek is undefeated and looking every bit a contender in Division III.
Red Mountain’s late play-calling: The Mountain Lions had a field goal blocked in the fourth quarter and a tying attempt in overtime sailed wide right in their 10-7 loss to Mountain View, so clearly there were issues with the kicking game. However, on a 4th-and-2 from the 6-yard line with 23 seconds remaining, Red Mountain chose to go for a first down instead of attempting the go-ahead 23-yard kick. The Mountain Lions did get the first down, but quarterback Mason Thorman was intercepted on the next play. This probably isn’t as cut-and-dry as many circumstances, but the odds of a kicker making a 23-yard field goal is usually pretty good, and Red Mountain should have tried it.
Coaching antics: For the second straight week, coaches were unhappy in the postgame handshake line. Last week there was an altercation between Chandler and Hamilton. On Friday, Desert Ridge was upset with alleged unsavory comments made by Basha assistants during the game. It would be nice if coaches could stay above the fray so we can focus on the athletes’ accomplishments on the field.