Winning in the playoffs is often about perseverance. So, too, is simply getting to this point.
In what’s arguably the most evenly-matched pair of schools in the first round of these football playoff games at any division, No. 9 Red Mountain and No. 8 Highland look and play the part of equals.
To an extent, they’ve even lived the same season.
Red Mountain began the year 1-4. The Lions were young, with all but a couple kids having little varsity game experience from the 2012 team, especially on offense. Red Mountain had all new skill-position players and two quarterbacks (Caleb Murray-Thomas and Brennen Dobson) still trying to figure out each’s strengths.
Don’t get coach Ron Wisniewski started on the new scheduling process, but the Lions’ August and September calendar wound up being Pinnacle (No. 6 seed in Div. I), Westlake (Calif.), Avondale Westview (No. 5 in Div. I), Brophy (No. 12 in Div. I) and Chaparral (No. 3 in Div. II).
Murray-Thomas got hurt, and the lanky, athletic Dobson was trying to be a prototypical NFL-style pocket passer. Additionally, injuries along the offensive line made that unit even younger, and the Lions felt they could have been 3-2 or even 4-1 midway through the schedule.
“To the kids credit they kept fighting,” Wisniewski said. “(The schedule) made our kids mentally tougher. We’re not going to line and be shocked and surprised. Last year we were blowing teams out early, and then we get in a game we were shocked. We’re much more mentally tougher than last year.”
The return of Murray-Thomas in October provided a much-needed emotional (and competitive) lift. His presence, combined with solid defensive play and changing to a more run-heavy package with Dobson when he’s under center helped turn the Lions’ fortunes. They knew they were a playoff-caliber team regardless of the record, and the strength of schedule rating was going to keep them among the top 16.
Red Mountain went 4-1 in October, the sectional games against the Mesa schools. The loss was a 17-7 contest against Desert Ridge, as close as any Arizona came to beating the Jaguars.
Wisniewski found the process behind his team’s second-half recovery went “shockingly well.”
“We knew it’d be a struggle early,” he said. “We kept telling the kids it’s a new group, worry about the next play and the one after that, not the score so much. Focus on the now and the big picture took care of itself. The kid did that.”
Even the turnaround from a 1-2 start to five consecutive wins took a toll on Highland, especially in the past three weeks against the elite Chandler schools (Basha, Hamilton and Chandler). A 14-7 loss to Hamilton two weeks ago snapped the winning streak, and a 21-14 loss to Chandler last week kept the Hawks in the top 8 to host a playoff game, but it took a mental and emotional toll.
Physically, however, the Hawks have held up. That’s often bad news for the opposition, especially defensively, where the Hawks again have been stingy and swarming. Three opposing coaches this season have said Highland’s defensive line is the best they’ve seen this season, led by the Grants (Grant Gale and Grant Thompson).
Offensively, however, is where Highland has evolved. The struggles early in the season were undeniable, but because the Hawks have been healthier of late and a group of seniors Wahlheim referred to as “a special group of 30 amazing kids in all walks of football and life,” the Hawks added wrinkles.
Highland hasn’t strayed from its traditional, line-up-and-run-the-ball-at-you style, but the Hawks implemented some more fast-paced, quick-passing plays into the book the past few weeks.
Initially, the kids had three days of practice to pick up on this variation of plays, but Wahlheim was pleased with the progress. The stats don’t jump off the page, but quarterback Blake Young picked up things quickly, as did the offensive line and receivers.
It won’t redefine the Hawks, but was viewed as a needed enhancement.
“We’d been to the playoffs, and in order to give ourselves a chance to make a run at this thing, we needed more in the books offensively,” Wahlheim said. “Guys are pretty healthy and they’re extremely smart kids who put in some extra time and picked it up extremely well. With teams we’re going to see down the road, it might or might not work, but it gives us another option. We’re not built to come back from behind it gives us a slightly better chance.
“We wanted to give this group every opportunity to make a run.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.