Yes, the playoffs are here. It’s a wonderful time of year for 16 high school football schools in six divisions. Or, for those left out of the fun, it’s often agonizing.
For several schools from Divisions I through VI, postseason participation is sometimes seen as an assumption, an afterthought, an expectation, or simply an annual occurrence en route to a championship.
For a few schools, however, it’s a glorious swim through uncharted waters. For three East Valley schools, a spot in the 2013 postseason is sweeter than most after being victims of hard times.
Cynics can find caveats in situations like these if they so choose, but the bottom line is schools, coaches, kids, parents and communities are still playing in November, so don’t expect any apologies anytime soon.
2013 record: 6-4 (No. 15 seed)
Opponent: at No. 2 Seton Catholic (6 p.m. Saturday)
2012 record: 1-9
It’s been rough, and Jesse Hart has seen it all.
An assistant coach at the San Tan Valley school since its inception four years ago, it’s been a turnstile of coaches from Day 1: Mike Vezzosi for the first two years (3-26 with those three wins were during its first-year, non-varsity schedule in 2010, then Marques Reichel in 2012 (1-9).
Hart has been a teacher and assistant through the rugged start, and jumped at the chance to take over the program last spring when Reichel resigned. Hart had seen a semblance of success coaching the lower levels at Mountain View in the late-2000s.
A former defensive coordinator and also the school’s track coach, he immediately instilled defense and run-control offense into the program (quarterback Sean Sasser has thrown 91 passes in 10 games). The kids bought into his sprint drills during the summer to become faster.
“I honestly believed we were a playoff-caliber team,” he said. “The seniors want to be that first class to change the culture. My expectation wasn’t win two games, but let’s have a winning record. I definitely believed they were playoff caliber.”
As it has with several schools, the new two-year scheduling block helped. Combs often played schools one or two divisions higher.
This time, the Coyotes played Division IV and V schools, not just whichever schools were geographically nearby, as was the case until now (Queen Creek, Williams Field, Poston Butte, Coolidge, etc.).
A win against Tucson Amphitheater in the final seconds was a huge boost for Combs, followed by the must-win against Coronado in Week 10 which kept Combs in the playoff bracket.
After a combined 1-19 record the past two years, the Coyotes know what they’re up against on Saturday night against Div. V’s defending state champions in Seton Catholic.
The Coyotes believe there’s a promising future, both in participation numbers and what Hart believes will be a talented freshman class.
But for this week, the future’s not theirs to see.
“It’s a big deal, it really is to everyone here and the community,” Hart said. “Everyone is really excited around here.”
2013 record: 9-1 (No. 2 seed)
Opponent: vs. No. 15 Sierra Vista Buena (7 p.m. Saturday)
2012 record: 2-8
A caveat: there’s little question that Mesquite moving from Division I down to Div. II has helped the Wildcats, both in schedule (although it’s still been littered with quality opponents) and roster depth.
The rest (and there’s a lot more to it than moving down a division) is a bit more tricky.
After two state championships and two other semifinal appearances in 22 years at Red Mountain, the program went in a different direction, as did Jones, who assisted at San Tan Foothills the past couple years until Mesquite called.
Despite the coaching change, the Wildcats had talent and experience returning from the 2012 team (along with a key cog in defensive back Jordan Robinson who transferred back home from Brophy), but Jones and his staff brought a hard-nosed, sometimes in-your-face, disciplinary style.
“As we got things going my concern was if they’d accept me and my style of coaching,” he said. “I felt strong about what I do, not X’s and O’s, but getting them prepared to play football and felt if they were willing to accept (his coaching style) they could make themselves into a playoff team.”
The Wildcats beat Gilbert without leading rusher Paul Perry. Then they lost to Williams Field, but even then Jones noted “1-2 plays away from being a different deal:” a kickoff return and long completions for Williams Field touchdowns.
Then came a somewhat bizarre win at Mountain View (Marana). The Wildcats had a last-second, game-winning field goal blocked, but because the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage and Mesquite recovered, the Wildcats were allowed to re-kick. Jarrod James nailed a 40-yarder on the redux for the win.
“Then the momentum started building for us,” Jones said.
So, too, has an eight-game winning streak, including last week’s 30-0 thumping over Campo Verde that moved Mesquite ahead of Chaparral in the playoff seeding.
“The talent is there, we have as much as I’ve ever coached, if not more,” Jones said. “The mindset is where it should be. It’s been a pretty rewarding experience. It’s awesome.”
2013 record: 6-4 (No. 15 seed)
Opponent: at No. 2 Chandler (7 p.m. Friday)
2012 record: 5-5
The first goal was to begin the season 5-0. Check.
The next was wins against “sister” district schools. Partial check.
The next goal was playoffs. Check.
But it’s all a prelude. A one-game difference from a year ago doesn’t look like much, and even coach Angelo Paffumi wasn’t gushing about the Coyotes’ first playoff appearance since 2008.
There were, after all, games which could have gone differently (a 50-49 loss to Desert Mountain, and even a 29-13 loss to Red Mountain in Week 10 left Paffumi lamenting).
Paffumi, an assistant under former coach Jesse Parker at Gilbert, and, more recently, at Desert Ridge before taking over Skyline, is in the midst of a reclamation project. The Coyotes were 6-26 from 2009-2011, and last year’s 5-5 record came with several of those caveats.
“I’m not taking anything back,” Paffumi said of the playoff berth.
The Coyotes don’t feel they’re anywhere close to where they believe they’re headed (lopsided losses against Mountain View and Desert Ridge are where they’re seeking to close the gap). To wit, Paffumi noted they went from 55 on varsity when he took over, down to 30 kids this season because of previous attrition and plenty of injuries in 2013.
Even a couple kids who were going to get moved up from JV to varsity this week declined because Paffumi said they were concerned about this week overlapping with basketball tryouts, and fear they wouldn’t make the hoops team.
“They’re just used to it being over, not an extra week or two weeks,” he said. “At other places it’s an expectation.”
Similar to Combs, Skyline is facing a huge uphill climb in dealing with No. 2 Chandler’s explosive offense and improved defense. Soon enough, however, Paffumi is hoping for much the same as the other elite Division I programs, both in terms of competitiveness and increased participation numbers.
“Our kids are excited,” Paffumi said. “I told them it’s like playing with house money, you do some things and win and if you don’t nobody thinks you were supposed to be here or do much, so who cares? We have nothing to lose. We’ll go out and play.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.