Coach Steve Belles and No. 3-seeded Hamilton knew one thing when November came around: it didn’t matter how the Huskies won, as long as they won.
In Friday night’s Division I state semifinals, it certainly wasn’t pretty for the perennial powerhouse, but championship-caliber defense rarely is.
Paced by a game-changing defensive touchdown in the third quarter, Hamilton knocked off No. 2-seeded Desert Ridge 21-7 at Highland High School and advanced to face No. 1 seed Mountain Pointe in next Saturday’s (Nov. 24) state championship game at University of Phoenix Stadium for the fifth consecutive year.
The Huskies and Jaguars have made a habit of tangling in the postseason, but for the third consecutive year Hamilton made all the right plays when it mattered most.
Although the Huskies had already defeated Desert Ridge earlier in the season 34-14, the Jaguars were a much different team heading into Friday night’s contest, and not for the better.
After losing 1,000-yard rusher J.J. Husar on Oct. 12, the Jaguars were dealt a harsh blow last week when starting quarterback Tarek Morrison tore his ACL in the team’s win over Avondale Westview.
In his place, junior Brendan Smith made the first start of his career and looked every bit the part of a young quarterback under the bright lights of playoff football.
While Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock was able to limit the pressure put on Smith in the first half – the team ran the ball 27 times out of 30 total plays from scrimmage – as the game got tight, the junior showed his inexperience.
With the game tied midway through the third quarter, Smith and Co. were pushed back inside their own 20-yard line. On a crucial third down call, Smith couldn’t find a receiver open on a busted play, but instead of throwing the ball away he stood unprotected in the pocket.
Unfortunately for Smith, Huskies defensive lineman Caleb Peart tracked the exposed quarterback the entire way and took matters into his own hands.
Peart's strip sack was returned for a 14-yard touchdown by Ethan Hendricks, and Hamilton went ahead for good at 14-7.
“I told myself right before that play that I needed to do something to help the team win,” said Peart, who also assisted on two other sacks. “We were getting great pressure on [Smith] all night, but hadn’t delivered the blow we wanted to."
Hamilton quarterback A.J. Thigpen was a non-factor in the passing game – 4-for-6 for 22 yards – but the senior added some insurance in the fourth quarter with a 58-yard touchdown run.
But offense wasn’t the story in Hamilton’s semifinal victory.
It was all about the overpowering Huskies defense – which recorded five sacks, forced three turnovers and held Desert Ridge to just three first downs in the second half.
“Our defense has played great all year, that was just another example of them keeping us in football games,” said Belles. “They did another great job tonight. If not for an offensive fumble in the first half, we probably get a shutout.”
Without their two leading rushers – Husar and Morrison – Desert Ridge rested their hopes on the broad shoulders of junior running back Danny Siaumau.
Siaumau, who came into the game with 448 yards on the season, carried the ball a season-high 24 times for 92 yards and a touchdown. Facing a defensive unit that at times stacked the box with nine or 10 guys, the Jaguars’ lone offensive threat most of the night did all he could to keep the game close, but in the end looked worn out in the waning moments.
“It wasn’t an issue of injuries, because we still had our offensive line,” Siaumau said. “We just weren’t really prepared for this game and it showed.”
Like his halfback, Hathcock wasn’t about to blame the team’s rash of late-season injuries for the team’s shortcomings against the Huskies, although he did dispute the notion that the Jaguars weren’t prepared to face Hamilton.
“We’re always prepared to play Hamilton,” said Hathcock. “The fact is, were we athletic enough to play Hamilton? I think defensively we probably showed we are the best team in the state, and Hamilton is right there. They did a good job of punching us in the mouth, and we withstood it for awhile. But, we just ran out of athletes.”
For the Huskies, a November trip to University of Phoenix Stadium didn’t seem all that likely early on in the 2012 season. After falling to 0-2 to begin their campaign, questions began to arise as to whether Belles’ squad was up to the challenge of meeting the annual expectations that comes with playing for the Hamilton program.
“We knew we were going to come around eventually,” said Hendricks. “We got off to a slow start, but when we got back from Ireland, we picked it up a lot. We pushed our tempo more, worked a little harder, stayed at practices a little longer and just got back to doing our jobs.
“Now, we are one game away from returning the gold ball back to where it belongs.”
Hamilton 21, Desert Ridge 7
DR - 7 0 0 0 -- 7
H - 7 0 7 7 -- 21
First downs: DR 10; H 4
Rushes-Yards: DR 52-121; H 28-143
Passing yards: DR 38; H 22
Comp-Att-Int: DR 2-15-2; H 4-6-0
Fumbles-Lost: DR 2-1; H 2-2
Penalty-Yards: DR 5-41; H 8-55
DR – Siaumau 15-yard run, Solis kick
H – Eggers 5-yard run, Wichman kick
H – Peart 14-yard fumble return, Wichman kick
H – Thigpen 58-yard run, Wichman kick