The Red Mountain High School football team is preparing to make another playoff push this pandemic-shortened season.
Last year the Mountain Lions finished the season 12-2 while posting a 5-0 record in league play, winning the East Valley Region for the third straight season. Red Mountain went into the 6A Conference playoffs as the top overall seed and fell to Liberty in overtime in the title game.
After the Arizona Interscholastic Association reconfigured football conferences, bring several schools up a level based on past success, new regions were formed. The Fiesta Region, which hasn’t been used since 2011, is now home for the Mountain Lions. It’s the first time since 2015 Red Mountain is no longer in the same region as the five other Mesa district schools.
But while the region may be new, the competition remains the same. The Mountain Lions went 3-0 against teams now in their division a year ago, as they Desert Ridge twice and Queen Creek in the 6A semifinals.
The move to the new region should boost the Mountain Lions overall strength-of-schedule, a factor that kept them out of the inaugural Open Division playoffs last season.
“Our goal is to try and make Open and win it,” said senior defensive back Georgie Ramirez, a team captain. “We’ve spent three years in an easy region and we’ve just waxed the competition. Now, we are going up against a lot of D1 guys, so we have to hit it harder.”
Kyle Enders, Red Mountain’s longtime defensive coordinator, believes the tougher schedule will benefit his team in the long run.
“It’s good to be tested and play the top schools in the area,” Enders said. “I truly believe we are now playing in the toughest region.”
As if changing regions wasn’t difficult enough, head coach Mike Peterson and the Mountain Lions have had to prepare for this season much differently than ever before due to COVID-19.
During the early summer workouts there was hardly anything to do because of restrictions set forth by the district. No way to practice. No way to get better.
“Our preparation was pushed back,” Peterson said. “There’s not much you can do with groups of nine, one coach and no football.”
Since then, Peterson said it has “gotten better,” and practices are getting back to some sort of normalcy.
But normal is something sports haven’t quite been in 2020.
Usually, Friday nights in northeast Mesa call for a large crowd and an enthusiastic student section for the Mountain Lions. This year, however, attendance is limited to 25 percent capacity at football games. For the most part, only family members can attend. Each player, band member and cheerleader can have four tickets reserved for family while visiting teams are limited to 400 spectators total, according to Peterson.
While Red Mountain is notorious for its excellent school spirit and massive student section, Ramirez claimed that when the ball is snapped, he “doesn’t notice all the extra noise.”
“It shouldn’t have too much effect on the actual game,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez was named team captain of the Mountain Lions for the 2020-2021 season. A starter on defense since his sophomore year, he found his way to the offensive side of the ball for Red Mountain’s run to the title game last season. He threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and caught six touchdown passes.
Primarily a safety, Ramirez hopes to make the same type of impact as last season. But most importantly, he aims to help the younger players on the team in his role as captain.
“It means a lot to me. I love being the captain of this team,” Ramirez said. “It teaches me responsibility and is honestly a fun job. It’s like being a manager at a restaurant with all of your buddies.”
Red Mountain’s offense thrived last year, averaging over 46 points a game led by senior quarterback Hyrum Boren. Boren threw for over 2,200 yards and 30 touchdowns last season. He also rushed for 886 yards and 11 more scores.
But with Boren, the team’s top three rushers and top two receivers all graduated, Red Mountain’s coaching staff is looking for the next player to step up.
“Our offense put up points last year,” Enders said. “We aren’t sure if it’s going to be the same this year, but we control what we control.”
Heading into the season, Peterson was unclear as to who will be the starting quarterback for the Mountain Lions. Peterson said senior Evan Svoboda and junior Jalen Daniels have been battling for the spot all summer, with no clear-cut favorite.
Svoboda, at 6-foot-5 inches, threw for nearly 300 yards as the backup last year. Daniels, meanwhile, at 6-foot-4, sat the first five games of the season after transferring from Chandler.
“You know what, we are going to toss two guys out there the first week and grade them out,” Peterson said.
Peterson did just that, as both quarterbacks saw playing time in Red Mountain’s season-opening win over Westwood. Svoboda saws slightly more playing time, completing 9 of his 11 pass attempts for 140 yards and a touchdown.
No matter who ends up being the starter going forward, both have the ability to navigate Red Mountain through a difficult schedule to potentially breakthrough to the Open Division.