Yuma Catholic is a fitting 2A title game foe for Northwest Christian — as the Shamrocks have served as a measuring stick for the Crusaders’ title chances.
It was the come-from-behind 14-10 victory on Oct. 15 that convinced first-year coach Dave Inness that this team, with only five seniors adjusting to a new coaching staff, was growing at an accelerated rate — fast enough to contend for the school’s first 11-man state football championship.
“Whether we won or lost that game, you could see us getting better. Since then, we’ve taken a big step each week,” coach Dave Inness said. “As a staff, we thought we could play with some teams in the playoffs. We could be dangerous.”
Northwest Christian plays Yuma Catholic at 2 p.m. Saturday in the Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Both teams sport prolific offenses and are looking to put up more points this time.
“We feel we didn’t play our best game against them last time,” junior quarterback Orbi Gonzales said. “We’re prepared to come out and do a lot better against them this time, hopefully get a little bit more offense.”
In the five games since, No.1 seed Northwest Christian (11-1) has dominated the competition, which includes some of 2A’s best. In the course of outscoring foes 256-53, the Crusaders have trounced four playoff teams.
The latest victim was the pre-eminent school in the conference, No. 5 St John’s (9-3). The Redskins entered the Nov. 19 semifinal with three titles in the past decade — including a 28-7 win in Northwest Christian’s lone 2A title game appearance in 2002.
St. John’s left as the second straight team to fall 42-13 to the Crusaders in the playoffs. After falling behind 7-0, Northwest Christian turned to junior tailback Casey Jahn (274 rushing yards and four touchdowns) and Gonzales (117 yards and two touchdowns).
“Everybody thought it was a rebuilding year. I’m pretty sure most of us thought that too ... I did,” junior linebacker/fullback Issac Vogt said.
Any discussion of Northwest Christian starts with Jahn. The Peoria resident pushed his season totals to 2,330 yards and 31 touchdowns.
And, as Inness said, his contributions to the program go beyond the stat sheet.
“Casey can play for anyone in this state. He gets better as the game goes on. He’s better on the 20th carry than he is on the 10th,” Inness said. “The best thing about Casey is, he’s a great kid. He’s not a me, me guy. He outworks everybody in the weight room. He’s a great role model.”
Several 2A teams rely on a big-time back. The maturation of Gonzales in his first year as a starter allows the Crusaders to have one of the conference’s only two-dimensional attacks. Northwest Christian averages 38 points per game.
Yuma Catholic (12-1) is the only team to slow the Crusaders offense.
The Shamrocks held Jahn under four yards per carry in October, but were done in by an 82-yard touchdown pass from Gonzales to sophomore James Mossbrucker.
“They run a 4-4 that’s heavy on the run stop,” senior lineman Travis Linser said. “Which most teams should do against us because we have Casey. I think if they stop the run game, they can’t stop us in the air game. We can go balanced.”
Inness said the Shamrocks run a fairly basic defense, but play with intensity and make few mistakes. And it starts up front.
“Their offensive and defensive lines were the best we played against,” Inness said. “Defensively they don’t run a lot of stuff, but what they run is very, very good.”
The Crusaders matched the Shamrocks’ defensive effort, limiting an offense that averages 41 points and 410 yards per game to 10 and 208, respectively. Inness was North Canyon’s defensive coordinator prior to accepting the Northwest Christian job, and has put his stamp on a unit short on size and experience but full of speed.
Now they have to do it again. Yuma Catholic possesses the rare small-school offense that tilts more toward passing. But the Shamrocks’ hallmark is balance.
Junior quarterback Tommy Pistone paces the attack with 2,880 passing yards and 29 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. His top targets are junior Matthew Koppinger (34 catches for 879 yards and 10 touchdowns) and senior tailback Chris Hill (22 catches for 517 yards).
Hill also leads the Shamrocks in rushing with 892 yards on 84 carries. He splits carries with senior fullback Julian Higuera (119 carries for 758 yards and 19 touchdowns)
“It definitely helps having seen them before,” senior linebacker Issac Vogt said. “Our secondary is great. They make great reads and they fly to the ball.”
The pieces have fit into place faster than anyone in the program expected. The Crusaders were picked to be fourth in the Central Region this year.
“When I got the job in May, the first spring practice I had 14 or 15 kids. I didn’t know what to expect” Inness said. “I looked at the game tape and I knew I had a tailback, a fullback and one lineman. I didn’t know if I had anything else. Aug. 1 is the first day of practice and I thought we’d be .500.”
It’s sweetest for Linser and fellow seniors Kenny Freidlander, Brian Lemeiux, Jeff Raneses and Christian Noren. They were part of the 2009 team that stormed to the No. 1 seed, only to fall to Wilcox in the quarterfinals.
“Last year we had, without a doubt, more talent than we did this year. But we’ve really bonded to coach Inness’ philosophy,” Lisner said. “No one really expected us to be really good this year — too young, too small, maybe a playoff team first round, growing pains — so this really means a lot to us, proving everybody wrong.”