Wesley Payne’s right ankle was taped, his gait was altered and the pain was persistent, but his mentality mirrored that of Mountain Pointe’s season.
It never wavered.
The Pride senior running back/linebacker sealed the 27-9 win over Desert Ridge in Division I state semifinals at McClintock High School in the fourth quarter with four straight carries, the first coming on a vital fourth down conversion.
Payne came off the sideline converted a fourth-and-1 from the Desert Ridge 40 with a 3-yard run before three more carries that finished with a 14-yard bulldozer of a run to put the Pride (13-0) up 20-9 with 7:33 remaining.
The way the Pride defense played in the second half that series essentially sealed the game.
“You sacrifice your body for the team in the playoffs; it’s win or go home,” he said as he used crutches to make his way back to bus. “I want to win. That’s what you have to do at this time of the year. The offensive line gave me huge holes. It’s do or die. I definitely was not going to miss this game or the next.”
The next is a return trip to Div. I state championship as the top-seeded Pride will get a rematch with last year’s foil - Hamilton (11-2) - at 3:30 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium on Saturday.
“We are more prepared this time because we’ve been there before,” said Pride linemen Natrell Curtis, who played both ways for the first time in a few months. “After we lost in the dome all we’ve thought about is getting back there to redeem ourselves.”
Mountain Pointe did it by playing behind at halftime for the first time all year after back-to-back fumbles on the first play from scrimmage and the ensuing kickoff after a Desert Ridge (11-2) field goal, along with several personal foul penalties, led to a 9-7 halftime deficit.
The Pride had only trailed twice all season and never had to play from behind in the second half, but they responded in championship fashion.
“I am so proud of our kids,” said Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan, who wiped away some tears. “We overcome some adversity, we were without two starters on defense because of an injury (Dominique Fenstermacher) and a suspension (a senior OLB) and we gave (Desert Ridge) a lot of opportunities, but they came through all of that.
“It was one of the best defensive performances I’ve seen in a long time.”
The fourth-seeded Jaguars have a one-dimensional, but record-breaking offense behind workhorse Taren Morrison, who came in with nearly 2,500 yards rushing and 38 touchdowns.
The Pride, led by Mitchell's Fraboni's two tackle for loss and a sack, nearly held him to under 100 yards for the first time all season, but two long runs after the victory was secured pushed his total unofficially to 103 yards on 27 carries.
“It was a battle of attrition,” said Jaguars coach Jeremy Hathcock, whose program has made four straight semifinals, losing the last three. “I tell you what, that is one of the better teams I’ve ever seen. They are better than on tape. (Taren) started out a little shell-shocked after getting hit in the mouth. He settled down, but we couldn’t run outside, couldn’t run inside, couldn’t throw. They are dominating on defense.”
The Pride offense showed up when it needed to after watching on the sidelines for nearly all of the first quarter.
Jalen Brown beat double coverage on the Pride’s second possession to erase 6-0 deficit, but trailed Mountain Pointe still trailed 9-7 at the half. Then with a slim 13-9 lead Mountain Pointe managed two consecutive touchdown drives that were finished off by Payne (11 rushes for 72) and Paul Lucas (13-110) with the latter going 46-yards for the score with 2:44 remaining.
The defining moment, however, was when Payne came off the bench and showed exactly what he is about.
“I wasn’t going to stay on the sideline with the game on the line,” he said. “There was too much on the line. A sprained ankle was going to stop me. Not in that situation.”
Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or JSkoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.