In the 2A state football tournament, the semifinals and state championship games are played on neutral fields.
After three straight eye-opening weeks, Tempe Prep has a real chance at advancing that far. And if it does, the team will feel right at home.
The Knights have flipped the conference on its head this month, knocking off traditional powers Scottsdale Christian, Thatcher and Valley Christian in successive weeks to vault up to No. 2 in the Tribune’s latest rankings.
Tempe Prep has done it the hard way. It doesn’t have a football stadium, instead playing its home games at either Canyon State or Arizona Lutheran. both of which are about 30 minutes away from the school. The Knights practice at a nearby park because there is no practice field.
“We don’t have locker rooms, we don’t have a football field, we don’t have a gym, we don’t have a P.E. class, we don’t have cheerleaders, we don’t have a band and we are just maxed out on a little, tiny campus,” Tempe Prep coach Tom Brittain said. “But we’ve got kids who work hard, and are buying in.”
Tempe Prep started the season 2-2, which resembled last year’s 4-5 mark in the team’s first foray into 2A competition.
A win over North Pointe pushed the Knights over .500, and then the real show started. Tempe Prep ‘hosted’ then-No. 1 Scottsdale Christian, and came away with a 35-13 victory. A win by Thatcher followed, but there was still some heisitancy to lump Tempe Prep in with the title contenders.
But on Friday night, facing defending state champion Valley Christian, the Knights let the conference know they were here to stay.
Despite a healthy size disadvantage, the Tempe Prep defense wreaked havoc all night, holding Valley Christian scoreless for the first time in seven years with a 25-0 victory.
A variety of players contributed to the cause, personified by converted linebacker Kyle Whalen. The former center intercepted a pass and returned it 32 yards for a score to give Tempe Prep its first points.
“First time I’ve ever (meaningfully) touched the football in my career,” Whalen said afterwards.
Despite the lack of amenities, Whalen wants the team to be known for its work on the football field, not its lack of resources off of it.
“I know some guys really buy into that and they love the idea that they are the underdog team,” Whalen said. “We don’t like to think about that. We just want to be seen as an elite 2A football team.”
Tempe Prep’s proven it the last few weeks, and reinforcements are coming.
Much of this run was done without Rocky Brittain on offense. He has been one of the team’s main cogs on offense for the past few years, but had just one carry prior to the Valley Christian game.
Against the Trojans he carried the ball four times for 20 yards, and as his workload increases, he gives the team another weapon.
“He is going to be a force in the playoffs, but we will just kind of ease him in gradually,” Brittain said.
For years, Valley Christian and Scottsdale Christian have been the preeminent 2A powers in the East Valley.
Tempe Prep went 9-2 in its last year in 1A in 2008, so the Knights seemed ready to make a move at some point. But just one month ago, no one had any idea it would be this soon.
“They are building from the inside out,” Valley Christian coach Kevin Allen said. “That’s a team that has the desire to get their program into the upper echelon of schools.”
No. 2 Williams Field will host Higley in a matchup between the final two unbeaten teams in the 4A-II East Sky Region. Higley began the year 0-3, but has reeled off four straight victories since region play began. Red Mountain narrowly lost to Chandler last week, and now must play at 5A-II No. 2 Centennial on Friday. Mountain View and Gilbert will face off in a game that is critical for both teams’ postseason hopes.
Desert Ridge defense: The Jaguars pulled off a 44-22 upset win over No. 3 Mountain Pointe, in large part because of the defense. While Desert Ridge is known for its offense, Mountain Pointe was held to only 66 yards rushing on 31 attempts, and Alex Barrett and Ryan Hathcock returned interceptions for touchdowns late to secure the victory.
Richard Winston: The Chandler defensive lineman sacked Red Mountain quarterback Aaron Eiseler on the final play of the game to help the Wolves hang on for a 28-22 Fiesta Region victory. The Mountain Lions had nine seconds to drive the final 14 yards to pull off the upset, but Winston hauled down Eiseler as he scanned the field for open receivers, and Red Mountain could not get back to the line of scrimmage in time for another play.
East Valley Region race: By virtue of Desert Ridge’s win over Mountain Pointe, the East Valley region race is going to be fun to watch coming down the stretch. The three favorites coming into the season — Mountain Pointe, Desert Ridge and Marcos de Niza — each have a loss already, while Perry sits atop the heap with an undefeated record. The Pumas still have to play Mountain Pointe and Desert Ridge, so it should be a wild finish.
Pinnacle’s play-calling: It is a tall order trying to compete with Chaparral, but coach Dana Zupke didn’t give his team much of a shot on Thursday. The Pioneers began the game by milking the clock and sticking to inside runs, but it was quickly apparent that this game plan would not work. However, Pinnacle stayed with the strategy and only threw two times in the first half for negative-1 yard, by which time it trailed 38-0.
More injuries: Many of the top 5A-I teams were debilitated by injuries this week. Chandler was down to its fourth- and fifth-string running backs, and quarterback Brett Hundley played gingerly on a sprained ankle. Brophy lost starting quarterback Tyler Bruggman for the season when he broke his ankle on Thursday. Red Mountain will play the rest of the season without tailback Xavier Parsons, who hurt his knee last week against Dobson.