The Highland football team entered the season feeling good about itself.
The Hawks went 6-5 last year and returned a large portion of impact players, including several three-year starters. However, they began the year just 1-2, and coach Pete Wahlheim said the players may have been feeling a little too good early on.
"We weren’t ready to play at the beginning of the season," he said. "We had some pretty good players and we thought we could just show up and win. It doesn’t work that way."
Highland lost to Queen Creek and Mountain View in the first three weeks, and even a win over Glendale Mountain Ridge to get back to .500 didn't inspire confidence.
Since then, though, the Hawks have turned it on. They handed Campo Verde its only loss of the season, 27-24, on Sept. 27 and have rolled past Gilbert and Perry in subsequent weeks to improve to 5-2 on the year.
The defense has been stout — Highland has allowed only 120 points through seven games, the third-fewest in Division I —and the offense has started to play better of late.
The Hawks ran for 400 yards and scored 49 points against Gilbert and quarterback Blake Young threw for 196 yards in Friday's 38-10 win over Perry.
"The offense is really starting to do their part," Wahlheim said. "We don’t need to score a gazillion points but we need to stay on the field. We’ve done some things the last couple weeks we haven't been able to do all year."
Now comes the toughest part of the schedule, as Highland faces Basha, Hamilton and Chandler to conclude the regular season. Wahlheim said the Chandler programs are at a level which the Hawks are trying to reach, so these games will be a notable barometer.
Highland played Basha close last year, losing a 21-17 game which was competitive from start to finish. And while the team's bravado may have been a crutch in the earlygoing, it could be a crucial ingredient in these contests.
"We've got a group of 30 seniors and they won't back down to anybody," Wahlheim said. "This group's not going to be intimidated. Maybe in years past (that was the case), but this group's been looking forward to it."