There is a sense of calm this week within the Marcos de Niza football team.
Sure, its game on Friday comes against three-time defending champion Chaparral, which won the first of those titles against the Padres. Yes, the winner advances to the state semifinals, and it figures to be another heavyweight fight after Marcos de Niza quarterback Josh Eckley scored on an 11-yard run as time expired for a 29-27 victory in the regular season meeting.
The Padres are well aware what’s at stake, but they know the talent is there. It’s a matter of focus and executing.
“We’re not trying to make this too crazy,” Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez said. “We don’t want an emotional roller coaster. Before we’d say: ‘We’re so excited!’ But now we know. We know what it takes to get past here.”
The Padres have been one of the better teams in their division the past two seasons but have lost in the quarterfinals both times. The team is once again a possible state championship contender, but the road is not easy.
The first matchup between Chaparral and Marcos de Niza wasn’t pretty, with turnovers and mistakes distracting from the talent on display.
“The first few games, it was like a free market, giving things away,” Chaparral coach Dave Huffine said. “It was absurd.”
Both teams feel like they have improved.
Chaparral began the season 1-3 but has reeled off seven consecutive victories to rejoin the state championship chatter. Senior quarterback Brad Schencker has established himself as the starting quarterback after platooning early with Sean Paul Brophy, but it’s a team-wide progression which has made the Firebirds come alive.
“A lot of kids had never played before, and we’ve had a lot of reps in close, tight contests against quality opponents,” Huffine said. “We’re not hesitating on what we’re doing. They don’t have to think before taking every action.”
The Padres struggled in the first half against Cesar Chavez in the season finale but turned it on after intermission. Then they routed Fairfax last week in the opening round of the playoffs.
Neither team should be intimidated in this one.
The Firebirds have grown up as the season has gone along, playing their best game in the season finale against Saguaro.
Marcos de Niza has a host of senior leaders who have been in the big-game environment and has the confidence after winning the in-season matchup.
“It’s a good thing we won because you got that monkey off your back,” Lopez said. “We also know that the game could have gone either way. We know that. It’s going to be a heck of a game. It’s always a good game between us.”