It had to be Brophy.
Mountain Ridge football has undergone an image makeover this year, showing improved senior leadership, winning close games and presenting a more unified front than in the past. The 8-2 Mountain Lions were rewarded with a No. 4 seed in the 5A-I playoffs, but will now be confronted with a piece of their past.
Since day one, Mountain Ridge’s main goal has been to break its string of first-round playoff losses — now at five consecutive years. To do so, the team must slam the door on a young, injury-hampered Brophy team whose predecessors have tormented the Mountain Lions.
“We worked real hard over the summer and talked about getting a high seed, hopefully getting two home playoff teams,” senior quarterback Hunter Young said. “We know them, they know us. They’re a good program. It’s not going to be easy game.”
In many ways, the impetus for the 2010 Mountain Ridge season came in the final game of 2009. Last year, the No. 14 seeded Mountain Lions battled the No. 3 Broncos until two fourth-quarter touchdowns gave Brophy a 24-0 win.
This year, the roles are reversed. Mountain Ridge’s sophomores and juniors from last year are the junior and senior leaders of this team. Brophy (5-5) lost a large senior class and its inexperience shows, particularly on offense.
“Our key to the playoff run is senior leadership. They’re the ones that carried us through the whole year,” Green said. “Getting out of the first round has been our Achilles heel.”
However, the Broncos still play their trademark sound, physical defense. Senior defensive end Charley Beck (84 tackles and 11 sacks), sophomore linebacker Robert Relf (95 tackles) and junior cornerback Matt Cahal 69 tackles, five interceptions) pace a unit that permits 21 points per game, despite spending a lot of time on the field.
In recent games, the defense has worn down in the second half. Phoenix Desert Vista led Brophy 16-14 at halftime Oct. 29, before winning 38-14. Chandler Hamilton was within striking distance for the Broncos, with a 6-0 halftime lead Oct. 22. The Huskies won 27-0.
“They switch up their defenses, from a 3-5 to a four-man front. We’re going to have to get the ball out quick based off their blitzes.”
Mountain Ridge has the weapons to punish a tired defense. Young spreads the ball around to four receivers all of whom have between 33 and 37 catches.
Three seniors were expected to lead the passing game and Jon Matter (36 catches, 404 yards) Josh Skadeland (33 catches, 405 yards and eight touchdowns) and Nick Perez (37 catches, 403 yards) have lived up to their billing. The surprise has been the emergence of junior Wes Meridith as a deep threat with 35 catches for 583 yards.
“There’s no individuals on this team. I think we all are here to help each other out,” Young said. “No one cares about certain stats. We just want to win as a team.”
Senior tailback P.J. Sparks punishes teams who focus on the passing game. He rushed for 1,007 yards and 14 touchdowns on 125 carries in the regular season — including five touchdown runs of more than 50 yards. His coach said the offensive line is doing a better job of opening holes this year.
“We’ve always had pretty good skill players on both sides of the ball. We lacked a little bit on both lines,” Green said. “Both our our line coaches Greg Buse and Kip Thomas — have done a good job with these guys. They’re playing well. The offensive line is giving Hunter time and opening holes for P.J. The defensive line is keeping players off the linebackers so they can make plays.”Defensively, the Mountain Lions pressure the quarterback from a variety of angles. Mountain Ridge picked up 36 sacks, despite no individual totaling more than junior Spencer Hammitt’s six.
The Mountain Lions speed will test a Brophy offense that hasn’t been settled all year. Senior Josh Dennard is the team’s leading rusher with 575 yards after moving over from wide receiver in midseason.
Junior Fred Gammage was the Broncos’ top pass catcher through six games, before an injury to sophomore quarterback Tyler Bruggman forced him under center. Sophomore receiver Devon Allen remains a threat, with 40 catches for 716 yards.
But the nature of the offense changed when Bruggman was lost for the year. Brophy coach Scooter Molander is known for his sophisticated passing games, and Bruggman was averaging 217 yards through the air. Gammage is settling in, but the playbook is smaller to help him along.
“They have two very good backs. They still do a pretty good job with their passing game, it’s just a little more short, controlled-type passing,” Green said. “They ran a lot of different formations. It’s a little more tailored down, probably because they have a new signal caller.”
Both teams enter the game off easy wins over lower-rung 5A-II teams. Mountain Ridge blew through region rival Goldwater 62-19. Brophy visited Yuma and rolled to a 61-22 victory.
Green realizes how competitive a bracket Mountain Ridge is in. This year, there’s a greater gap between top-rated Hamilton and whoever the No. 2 team is in 5A-I then there is between No. 2 and No. 13.
“This year, in the 5A-I bracket, there’s no easy games,” Green said. “Anybody can beat anybody, if you take Hamilton out of the mix.”