One of this summer's prevalent assumptions was that the Fiesta Region would come down to next week's showdown between Hamilton and Chandler.
It might, but Red Mountain is making sure its voice will be heard loud and far in the coming weeks.
The Lions were supposed to be in transition following a coaching change this offseason, but Ron Wisniewski's bunch remains perfect this season after a 20-10 slugfest victory against Mesa on Friday.
It won't be remembered for aesthetics. Following a bench-clearing brawl this summer during a passing-league tournament, the physicality and fisticuffs figured to be plentiful between these Mesa rivals. Sure enough, the two teams combined for 21 penalties, including multiple personal fouls in the first half on both sides.
Eventually, however, the dust (and yapping) settled a bit, as did Red Mountain's offensive line, which allowed quarterbacks Aaron Eiseler and Clint Cogswell time to throw and gave Xavier Parsons enough room up the middle to help run the clock out in the fourth quarter after Mesa cut the Lions' lead to 20-10.
Coming off its bye week, the Lions (4-0, 1-0 Fiesta) overcame a slew of penalties and a couple drops on potential big plays in the passing game. But the defense picked up the slack with five sacks, held Mesa to 83 rushing yards (20 of which came on a fake punt), and Jacob Tune's interception in the end zone negated Mesa's best drive of the night.
Against what Wisniewski called the best defense they've seen this year, Joel Honeycutt and Billy Freeman caught touchdown passes from the Lions' dual quarterbacks, a platoon system which appears to be working thus far, even though Wisniewski said he'd like to see one of those guys emerge in similar vein to how his offensive line has held the fort.
"We're really fortunate," Wisniewski said of his O-line. "They really, really work hard, they're great kids and they don't care about their names showing up in the paper."
The Jackrabbits (2-3, 0-2) held their own defensively most of the way, but the offense struggled up front and couldn't stretch the field to prevent Red Mountain from crowding the line of scrimmage. After Aaron Rivera nailed a 42-yard field goal at the buzzer to pull Mesa within 13-3 at halftime, Geoff Turnbull's 15-yard touchdown run capped a solid Mesa drive in the fourth quarter to again cut the deficit to 10 points. But Red Mountain recovered the onside kick with seven minutes left.
"It's the way it's going to be until we get going on all parts," Mesa coach Kelley Moore said. "...It's about execution, it doesn't matter what plays you run. I like our don't-quit attitude and it was better than last week and that's a good sign, but we don't have a lot of time to continue to grow so need to put it together now."
For the lurking Lions to keep this early-season surge going, it's going to take even more. Improving Brophy awaits next week, then a three-game stretch of Chandler, Peoria Centennial and Hamilton awaits in October.
Right now, they're happy to oblige meetings with the predicted powers.
"We had to be tough enough to come over (to Mesa) and win, and we stood up toe-to-toe with them," Wisniewski said. "That's really encouraging."