Confidence and momentum can be powerful allies to any sports team. Right now both assets are suiting up in the silver and blue as the Deer Valley Skyhawks football team rides a three-game winning streak into tonight's Northwest Region matchup at Goldwater High School. In a battle pitting a pair of 4-3 teams, sole possession of first place will be at stake, as one team will leave the field with a 3-0 region mark. "If you're looking for a huck and chuck football game go somewhere else Friday night," said Deer Valley coach Sven Christianson. "This one is going to be about smashmouth football. They've got a big, physical aggressive team and we've got to match that. It probably won't be pretty, but it will be a good competitive game that probably will be decided by who has the ball last." Goldwater-Deer Valley has been a spirited contest as the two teams are in the same district, but this year's game takes on more significance for a number of reasons. A season ago, Deer Valley got a fourth-quarter touchdown from Jimmy Goad to pull out a 31-27 win in the regular-season finale. A week later, the two teams took to the field again, in the first round of the 5A Div-II playoffs. In the rematch, the eighth-seeded Skyhawks saw their season come to a close and had to watch the No. 9 Bulldogs celebrate on their field after Goldwater converted a 2-point conversion in double overtime to pull off a 29-28 win. "It has always been a big rivalry, but the fact that they took us out last year raises it up even more," said junior quarterback Pearce Swerdfeger. Swerdfeger has helped raise the level of play of a Deer Valley offense that is coming off its highest scoring game of the season in a 37-7 win over Willow Canyon (5-2, 1-1). While previous Deer Valley teams may have wilted in the face of adversity, this year's team hung tough. Undaunted by a 45-yard touchdown by Willow Canyon to open the game's scoring and an early interception by Swerdfeger, the Skyhawks would come back to dominate, improving to 2-0 in region play. "They got us early," said senior tackle Ron Mallory. "But we just put it behind us and kept battling. After those two early plays, we played pretty close to mistake-free football." Between team chemistry and quality of athletes, Mallory said this is the best Deer Valley team he has played for in his three seasons on varsity. Whether Mallory would have said that after the team got off to a 1-3 start is debatable, However Christianson said his team was confident better days were ahead. Among the early losses were two against 5A Div-I squads, Mesa Mountain View and Basha. As 5A Div-I teams neither of those schools will be in the Skyhawks path in the 5A Div-II state playoffs. "The players knew the quality of teams we played early," the coach said. "You want to believe you can win every game, but I think we would have been happy to be 3-2 after our non-region schedule. We ended up being 2-3, but we've continued to get better." The final loss before the current win streak came at Westview, against a highly touted 5A Div-II Knights team, one the Skyhawks could cross paths with, come the postseason. After coming out on the losing end of a 42-24 game, the Skyhawks learned a valuable lesson after seeing a 14-0 early advantage slip away. "We realized that we had to two-platoon," Christianson said. "At that time we had seven players going both ways, the majority of the game. It's getting harder and harder to do that anymore. You have to utilize more players." In last week's win, the Skyhawks had 21 different players man the 22 starting positions (11 on offense, 11 on defense). Senior Kory Willis was the lone player seeing the majority of snaps at both defensive end and tight end. "We've got a couple guys that play all the time on one side of the ball, but they're only part of a rotation if they play on the other side of the ball as well," Christianson said. "It's amazing what happens when a kid running as the number two at a position is given more responsibility. You decide you're going to count on them and often they elevate their game to rise to the occasion." While the coach said several players fit the bill, perhaps no one stands out in that regard more than senior Jamaul Armstrong. Through the first six games of the regular season, Armstrong was used sparingly at running back, gaining 91 yards on 26 carries. But as the Skyhawks coaching staff felt compelled to move other players around, Armstrong was the primary ball carrier against Willow Canyon. The senior responded with a breakout performance rushing for 160 yards on 18 carries. That effort complimented the passing attack of Swerdfeger and company as the junior, who placed second in the state wrestling tournament as a sophomore, completed 9-of-13 passes for 149 yards and three touchdown. "He's getting more and more confident about his place on the team," Christianson said. "I've seen the confidence of Pearce when he's out on the mat. It's not arrogance, but you can tell that kid knows he's going to win. He isn't there yet on the football field, but he's getting closer to that type of belief." Mallory said Swerdfeger has gained confidence as the offensive line has developed chemistry. Deer Valley's win streak started Sept. 20 against Ironwood. a school that had beaten Deer Valley three straight times. Through three quarters the Skyhawks looked on their way to a fourth straight defeat before rallying for 15 unanswered points in the fourth quarter in a 15-12 win. After a bye week, Deer Valley opened region play with its first shutout of the season, 27-0 over Kingman. During the winning streak, the Skyhawks defense has allowed 19 points total. Against Goldwater, the challenge for the defense will be stopping the run. With a large, physical offensive line, the Bulldogs split carries between C.J. Morgan and Bobby Tomas. The pair of seniors have combined to rush for 1,242 yards and 12 touchdowns this season. "We showed that we could stop the run against Willow Canyon, so hopefully we can do that again this week," Mallory said. If Deer Valley can pull out a win tonight, they would be in position to win the school's first region title since 1984 and only the second in the school's 27-year history. The Skyhawks would still have two games remaining however they should be favored against Valley Vista (0-7, 0-2) and Boulder Creek (3-4, 1-1). "We're ecstatic knowing what we have the chance to play for," said Willis. "We're going to have the energy high all week and set a good tempo during practice. I mean this football program has gone through 27 years of basically nothing. If we play hard aggressive football and minimize the mistakes we'll be in good position to get a win." Willis said the team knows even with a win, their work won't be done. He admits thoughts of winning a region championship have crossed his mind. "I mean that would be huge," he said. "It hasn't happened in so long, we'd be remembered for sure."
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