Kevin Yost throws, looks and composes himself like a college quarterback.
But the Mountain Ridge senior is focused on finishing his high school career with a flourish. Through the season's first nine game he has, leading the Mountain Lions to their best record in five years (8-1) and improving in nearly every statistical category.
Yost and his coach Bobby Green - who took over the program in 2006, Yost's first year as starter - say this year the quarterback's ability to read defenses, make his progressions and remain calm under pressure has improved, allowing Yost to fully showcase the natural ability that's always been there.
"You're seeing the dividends of it this season," Green said.
Yost's growth, combined with the graduation of speedy tailback Giorgio Giurdanella and good health of senior receivers Cody Wollschlager and Travis Hutchinson, caused the coaching staff to open up the playbook. Unlike most Arizona high school teams, Mountain Ridge fills the air with footballs.
"It's definitely a compliment to give me 30 to 35 passes a game," Yost said.
In 2008, Yost has completed 62 percent of his throws for 1,965 yards and 21 touchdowns, while only throwing five interceptions. Wollschlager hauled in 58 passes for 758 yards, while Hutchinson caught 31 passes for 451 yards.
The Mountain Lions' attack, which incorporates four- and five-receiver sets, frequent use of the shotgun and spread offense principles, is also a blast to play in for the trio, compared to standard ground-oriented high school systems.
"These other (school's) kids playing receiver, they're there to block," Hutchinson said. "They only get the ball once of twice a game."
Unlike some teams that rely on the pass, Mountain Ridge isn't slinging deep balls to try and erase large deficits. Green said there's an order to the offense, which often uses short passes in the place of runs.
Green has spent his entire coaching career at Mountain Ridge and remembers a time when the Mountain Lions pounded opponents out of the wing-T formation. Green's decision to use the spread in recent years wasn't based on an affinity for the offense, he said. It's a case of the system fitting the quarterback.
The coaching staff trusts their quarterback enough to allow him to change plays at the line of scrimmage. It's something Yost said he wasn't ready for until this year.
"I'm able to look at stuff and process it much faster," he said.
In its first five games, all decided by nine points or less, Mountain Ridge's ability to move the ball through the air was crucial.
The Mountain Lions began the season traveling to Tucson to face a stout Sunnyside defense. In defeating the Blue Devils 14-5, one of the top 5A-II teams, Mountain Ridge scored in unusual ways - a touchdown pass by Hutchinson and a quarterback sneak by Yost - but found most of its offensive success in the passing game.
The team followed this mildly surprising victory by becoming upset fodder for an ascendant Laveen Cesar Chavez team. Yost threw for 206 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the 26-21 loss.
"I actually think the Chavez loss may have helped us in the long run," Yost said.
Mountain Ridge found its footing against two solid 5A-II squads, Mesa Skyline and Phoenix Pinnacle. Yost passed for 212 yards and two touchdowns in a 26-17 win against Skyline. He and the Mountain Lions followed with a season-defining performance in the comeback victory over Pinnacle.
After spotting the Pioneers a 17-0 lead in the first quarter and a 24-14 advantage midway through the third, the Mountain Lions roared back with an aerial assault. Touchdown passes to Hutchinson and Wollschlager gave Mountain Ridge a fleeting lead.
Pinnacle struck back with a little more than three minutes left, but Mountain Ridge pulled out the 35-31 win on a rare running play by senior Brett Hager with 46 seconds remaining.
The connection forged by Yost and Wollschlager came to the forefront in the Pinnacle game. The quarterback threw for 289 yards and four touchdowns, locking in on his top target, who hauled in a remarkable 16 receptions for 204 yards and three touchdowns.
"We trust each other a lot more," Wollschlager said.
All the momentum built against Pinnacle nearly slipped away the next week against lightly-regarded Tolleson. The Wolverines stifled Mountain Ridge's offense for most of the game, building a 15-3 lead entering the fourth quarter. Yost led another comeback, hitting Hutchinson and Hager on late scoring passes to swipe a 16-15 win.
Mountain Ridge has posted four fairly easy wins since, often jumping to big leads and using its ground game to bleed the clock. The lone exception was Yost's 333-yard, four touchdown performance against Scottsdale Desert Mountain Oct. 24. He earned the Arizona Cardinals and Wells Fargo "High School Player-of-the-Week" award for that game.
Mountain Ridge's seven-game winning streak has thrust the team into the conversation in 5A-I for the first time since the 5A conference split in 2005.
"It's definitely a lot better to have a team that can do some damage in the playoffs," Yost said.
Tonight is a chance for the Mountain Lions to prove their legitimacy when they play host to Brophy Prep. The Broncos (7-3) haven't had an easy road in defending last year's state championship, but still are the best team on Mountain Ridge's schedule.
"They're balanced on both sides of the ball and they have one of the best defensive lines in the state," Green said.
The Desert Valley Region championship will be determined tonight, as will playoff seeding (although both schools are likely to host a first-round game). Plus, there is something special about playing one of the state's traditional powerhouses.
"Everybody knows who Brophy is," Yost said. "We're going to come out ready."
Green said he'll rely on his senior leader to keep the team focused and to inject his playful side in the huddle so the offense isn't uptight.
"I don't think there's a more competitive person," Green said. "But he also keep the game in perspective. He knows how to have fun within the game."
It's this sense of perspective that goes into Yost's main college goal - which is off the football field. He said he's been interested in business for years and his main college goal is to earn a MBA.
He'd like to continue his football career, too, although he hasn't received a scholarship offer yet. In recent weeks, Yost has received more interest from some Pac-10 teams, as well as some smaller schools.
"They were all waiting to see my senior season," he said. "I've had a lot of talks with schools in recent weeks and they've all been really positive."
For now, Yost said his focus is on Mountain Ridge making a run in the playoffs. The rest, he believes, will take care of itself.