Raise your hand if, in August, Mesquite vs. Campo Verde was atop your list of premier matchups heading into the playoffs; that this game would decide a section championship and have a significant impact on earning home playoff games?
After all, Mesquite was 2-9 in 2012 and underwent a coaching change last spring. Campo Verde had more success in 2012 (7-4 and a playoff berth) but lost nearly everyone from its defense.
But here we are, a matchup of top-8 teams (Mesquite is No. 3 and Campo Verde is No. 7 based on this week’s final power rankings used for playoff seeding), and, in many ways, styles which mirror each other.
“They all better be besides themselves,” Jones said with a chuckle about both teams’ success in 2013.
The turnaround at Mesquite under new coach Jim Jones has been impressive to say the least. Armed with several returning starters from a year ago who took their lumps as underclassman, the Wildcats’ offensive line and running game, defense and better-than-efficient play from quarterback Payton Haslam – along with the move down to Division II – turned the Wildcats back into a force in Jones’ five months on the job.
So, too, has a more disciplinary approach.
A loss to an elite Division III program in Williams Field is the Wildcats’ (8-1) lone hiccup this season, including recent wins against Glendale Cactus, Poston Butte and Marcos de Niza. Mesquite, an oft-challenged team offensively the past five years, averaged 45 points per game in October.
Mesquite went 8-2 in the regular season in 2010 under Mike Reardon (9-3 including playoffs), and these Wildcats are on the verge of matching that feat.
“It’s been a real good buzz (around campus), Jones said. “…With the talent we have this year it doesn’t take much on (coaches) part. We let the horses run. “…That was not an issue, the talent. It was about everyone going in the same direction and same page, sometimes moreso coaches than even players.”
Not only has Campo Verde picked up where the Coyotes (8-1) left off last year, a whole new defensive unit has not only not missed a beat, but has arguably improved. The Coyotes’ lone loss came in dramatic fashion against a solid Division I team in Highland (27 points allowed). Outside that game, the Coyotes have allowed 8.2 points per game.
So, too, has the offense. With coach Max Ragsdale, defense and special teams each come before offense, so even though there is no sling-it-around-the-field philosophy, a powerful running game has helped quarterback Luke Pineda into having one of the best seasons of any quarterback in the Southeast Valley to date. The three-year starter has completed 70 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards, 19 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He’s also run for 465 yards and nine touchdowns.
“He’s definitely the cog that makes our wheel turn,” Ragsdale said. “You wouldn’t notice him, he doesn’t say a word. Last year we went back and forth with quarterbacks for awhile and he still said nothing, same thing (in 2011), never said anything. He just put the work in the weight room and it’s showing.”
What’s the difference in games like these? Possibly turnovers. Possibly penalties. Possibly special teams.
Probably all three. With two teams this strikingly similar having the success each has enjoyed in 2013, both sides agreed the margin for outcome one way or another is going to be paper-thin.
“When I came in the concern was not having success up until this point,” Jones said. “A lot of times you get into a frame of mind and it’s not good, so getting the attitude and frame of mind changed a little was first, and make them believe in winning and in themselves, ‘expecting,’ not just ‘hoping.’ I think it’s progressed as the wins have come.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.