‘Tis the season to explain, qualify and quantify the inexplicable, unqualified and number-less.
Twenty high school football teams remain spanning five divisions, nine from the East Valley. All are in pursuit of one of the five golden balls given out next weekend.
Hamilton and Brophy (Div. I) have won it all in recent years. So has Peoria Centennial (Div. II), Lakeside Blue Ridge (Div. IV), Northwest Christian and Yuma Catholic (Div. V).
The others, a group which includes Desert Ridge and Mountain Pointe (Div. I), Marcos de Niza (Div. II), Queen Creek and Williams Field (Div. III), Seton Catholic (Div. IV) and Tempe Prep (Div. V) have been oh-so-close at least once in the past three years.
Whether these schools have made semifinals appearances (as they all will be this weekend) or a championship games, each has ultimately left as depressed groomsmen instead of the celebratory groom.
The question posed, then, was simple:
What’s the difference between being in the final four and toting around the trophy?
The answers? Those were varied and difficult to enunciate, all at the same time. Thus a chicken-or-egg debate begins between knowing the traits necessary to be title teams, yet not knowing what it takes until a title is won.
“The mentality, they have to know how to win,” Hamilton’s longtime defensive coordinator Lane Reynolds said.
“Once we got over that in 2003 it became contagious. Kids came up and understood what it takes to win the gold ball because the older guys had done it and the younger guys were around, so when they were older it was already understood what it takes.”
Most point to a combination of talent, coaching, health (or lack thereof), timing and dumb luck.
“It doesn’t happen by random or luck or any of that unless you believe,” Brophy coach Scooter Molander said. “You have to have belief. That’s getting the job done no matter in any way possible. You need to be challenged against tough opponents, you need to be challenging and challenged.”
Hamilton, Chaparral (Div. II) and Saguaro (Div. III) have set the ceiling in the past five years for championships, but Hamilton was knocked off by Desert Vista last year, and both Chaparral and Saguaro lost in the quarterfinals last week. Remember, too, that Chaparral went to three consecutive semifinals as a Class 4A Division I school before the Firebirds won three consecutive state titles, but fell short a couple times to Saguaro.
There is no getting around a reality that Saguaro had teams with seven or eight kids who were Division I-college caliber players. Hamilton has had the same fortunes as well.
Talent matters a lot. But teams such as Chandler and Marcos de Niza have been loaded with talent, only to turn in uniforms early. Williams Field was on the verge until turnovers proved costly in the 2010 championship loss in overtime to Phoenix Thunderbird.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as injuries and when they happen,” Williams Field coach Steve Campbell said. “Who gets hurt? What position? When? There’s so many different factors that you have no control over.”
Mountain Pointe went to the semifinals two years ago but has never been to a championship game. Desert Ridge went to the championship game two years ago but fell short to Hamilton.
Marcos de Niza has made semifinal appearances during the Roy Lopez era, but most recently lost to Chaparral in the 2009 title game (5A-II) and has lost in the quarterfinals the past two seasons.
Queen Creek won a 2A championship in the late 1990s, but the program’s recent revival of success under Joe Germaine remains ongoing. The Bulldogs lost to Saguaro in the past two playoffs (semifinals in 2010 and quarterfinals in 2011).
Seton Catholic fell to Blue Ridge in last year’s semifinals and faces another White Mountains team in Show Low on Saturday. Tempe Prep’s ascension in Div. V continues in making its first semifinals appearance in school history against Morenci on Saturday.
“To win it you have to have a breakthrough moment,” said Chaparral coach Dave Huffine, the offensive coordinator during the Firebirds’ recent dynasty. “For a team like Marcos you could say they’ve had it in terms of us being a thorn in their side lately. There needs to be a moment where you gain that confidence and feel your team made a turn into a championship-level contender.”
Even Hamilton feels it has a nasty aftertaste in its mouth from last year’s loss to Desert Vista in the title, but the vast majority of East Valley schools are yet again on the brink of something great.
Which ones will reach next week’s big stadiums and spotlights, which will revel in that spotlight and pressure to win, and why?
A bunch of schools would love to find answers for the first time.
“You just have to have kids who don’t care about what’s happened in the past but are going out there and doing everything right,” Huffine said. “It also helps to have the ball bounce your way a few times.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.