In today’s age, it doesn’t take long for once-proud football programs to fall quickly from relevance.
St. Mary’s is going through it. So are Gilbert, Corona del Sol and McClintock.
For the past few years, Gilbert schools Highland and Mesquite seemed headed down that path.
The Hawks went 6-5 last year, their first winning season since 2008. The Highland program currently boasts three alums in the NFL, but a pronounced dropoff in talent had it struggling to compete at the Division I level.
Mesquite, meanwhile, went a combined 5-15 the past two years. The Wildcats were having kids siphoned away by Campo Verde, Hamilton and Chandler, and dwindling enrollment led to an uncertain future.
With one week left in the regular season, though, both teams are back to their vintage selves.
Even though Highland lost to Hamilton, 14-7, on Friday night, the contest was tied late in the fourth quarter as the Hawks went toe-to-toe with the vaunted Huskies from start to finish. This came on the heels of an upset of Basha and a big win over Campo Verde, as Highland has shrugged off a 1-2 start with wins in five of its past six games. The defense ranks among the state’s best, as Grant Thompson, Grant Gale, Chip White and others make life tough on opponents.
A three-game stretch of Basha, Hamilton and Chandler to end the season looked daunting, but Highland is 1-1 heading into the finale and has not looked out of place for one second.
Mesquite defeated Marcos de Niza on Friday night to improve to 8-1. The Wildcats dropped down a classification to Division II this year becase of the enrollment decrease and has immediately proved to be one of its elite teams.
The transfer addition of Jordan Robinson has been a big help, as has the emergence of running back Paul Perry and wide receiver Nolan Tondreau. Former Red Mountain coach Jim Jones took over in the spring and the move has paid immediate dividends. If the team continues to play well, he will be in the running for Coach of the Year.
Mesquite has a showdown against Campo Verde in its regular season finale on Friday, and the Wildcats could make a claim as the fourth-best team in Div.II with a victory.
While neither of these teams will be chosen as title favorites, both could win a couple games in the postseason — an important step forward after some worrisome times.
While one year doesn’t ensure future success, it’s meaningful progress because of the schools’ locations.
Both are still relatively new with nice facilities, but are so close to fellow schools that it’s easy for kids to open-enroll elsewhere. Once that happens, the domino effect can cause a team to fall off the tracks quickly.
Mesquite and Highland have gotten back on course with good seasons thus far, and every win moving forward is a building block for the future.
The Mesquite-Campo Verde matchup is the marquee game, which few saw coming at the beginning of the year. Both squads are 8-1 and aiming for at least one — and maybe two — home games in the upcoming playoffs.
Highland finishes off its Chandler district dance with a matchup against Chandler, which has won five in a row and is dominating the competition. The Hawks beat Perry and Basha and were tied with Hamilton late in the fourth quarter on Friday night, so they won’t roll over against the high-powered Wolves.
Red Mountain-Skyline has heavy playoff implications, while Williams Field-Higley and Desert Ridge-Mountain View are also other top games to watch.
Chandler: The Wolves continue to distance themselves from a program which has been known for its inability to win big games. Chandler has defeated Peoria Centennial, Hamilton and now Basha this season. The 49-7 win over the Bears was as impressive as the score indicates. The offense was in peak form and the defense was flying around and making plays. The Wolves’ performance is matching their talent this year, and it has possibly made them the top contender to Mountain Pointe in Division I.
Taren Morrison, Desert Ridge: The junior running back continues to bolster his resumé for Player of the Year consideration. Morrison ran for 303 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 99 yards for a score in a 55-41 win over Desert Mountain on Friday. Morrison has 122 carries for 1,673 yards and 23 touchdowns on the season and is averaging 13.71 yards-per-carry. Even though the class of 2014 is seen as the best the state has ever produced, this junior continues to steal the show.
Austin Carver, Gilbert: The Tigers defeated Perry for their second win of the season on Friday night, and Carver had a big role in the win. He booted three field goals for all of Gilbert’s scoring in the 9-0 victory, hitting from 52, 44 and 20 yards out.
Desert Vista: The Thunder were ranked No. 13 in the Division I power rankings heading into Thursday night’s matchup with 1-win Corona del Sol. Desert Vista lost the game handily and now could miss the playoffs with a loss next week to Brophy. It was a great chance to secure a playoff bid against a hapless Aztecs team, but Desert Vista couldn’t.
Perry: The Pumas started 2-1 but the season has been fruitless since then. The team has lost six consecutive games, five by 19 points or more. Perry had a winnable game on Friday night against Gilbert, but the offense had trouble all night in the 9-0 loss.