Football coaches spend an ungodly amount of hours analyzing situations down to the last detail because no one wants to be unprepared.
But at the high school level, there is almost always one thing that rings true: No matter the coverage or the game plan, a star tailback makes life a whole lot easier for the offense.
On Friday, with the playoffs just around the bend, several East Valley schools rode their main running back to much-needed victories.
It starts at Desert Ridge, where Joey Counts put on an incredible display, rushing 19 times for 400 yards and five touchdowns in a 63-14 win over Phoenix North Canyon. Jeremiah Cornist of Avondale La Joya was listed as the 5A record-holder with 380 yards, set in 2008, although reports had Tucson Sunnyside’s Manny Vera running for 409 yards last year.
Either way, Counts' amazing night — which included 10 carries for 317 yards in the first half — made life easy for coach Jeremy Hathcock.
"It makes you seem like a great coach," Hathcock said. "In the game of football, you need coaching more than any other sport. But at the same time, it's still a kid's game, and sometimes the Jimmy's and the Joe's are better than the X's and the O's. And our Jimmy was better than their Joe."
Williams Field was without versatile athlete Sean Schweichler because of a knee injury against Poston Butte, so the Black Hawks leaned early and often on Alex Howard. He had 26 carries for 305 yards and four touchdowns to lead Williams Field to a 35-20 victory.
With its playoff life on the line, Corona del Sol running back Dominic Mercurio ran the ball 22 times for 215 yards and four touchdowns, the last of which was the game-winner in a 36-33 victory over Mesquite.
Saguaro's D.J. Foster kept up his own assault on the record books, rushing for 296 yards and five touchdowns in a 70-35 win against Arcadia. Nick Cole helped Notre Dame to its third straight win with 18 carries for 214 yards in an easy victory over McClintock.
Mountain Pointe's Dillan Johnson willed the Pride to a win with 245 yards rushing and four touchdowns, plus a 54-yard punt return.
Even star wide receivers get moved to running back when coaches want to force the issue.
Marcus Brantley made the switch to tailback at Red Mountain, and it has helped the Mountain Lions win six straight games. He had 100 yards rushing and two touchdowns on only three carries in an easy win over Skyline on Friday. He also added a 47-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown and a 25-yard interception return for a touchdown, and while his greatest strength may be on defense, Red Mountain knows guaranteeing him touches at running back will help the offense.
After Clayton Stanchik went down with a knee injury against Chandler, Hamilton coach Steve Belles made a concerted effort to get the ball more to Kendyl Taylor. He caught a variety of quick passes in a 44-14 win against Basha on Thursday, but he also ran the ball 17 times for 133 yards and a touchdown.
"He’s a special player," Belles said after the win. "We need to find ways to use him in big games."
Chaparral star Davonte Neal is too small to play running back in college, but he excels when put there in high school. As a natural receiver, Neal leads the Firebirds in catches and yards, but he has also carried the ball 62 times for a team-high 705 yards.
It just goes to show, when teams are in a pinch, there is an obvious remedy.
For all the intricacies involved, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure this one out: hand your best player the ball, and let him run.
After a two-week lull, the showdowns are back. In Scottsdale, bitter rivals Saguaro and Chaparral rekindle their battles from a few years ago, and the teams are just as good as ever. The Firebirds, led by quarterback Connor Brewer and athlete Davonte Neal, are ranked No. 1 in Division II. The Sabercats, led by running back D.J. Foster, are No. 1 in Division III.
There is another primo game in Division III, as No. 7 Queen Creek (8-1) and No. 3 Williams Field (8-1) face off in the season finale.
The top game in Division I is between Chandler and Desert Vista, a pair of teams gunning for a top-4 seed to guarantee home field advantage in the first two rounds of the postseason.
Some luster was lost from the Pinnacle-Brophy matchup when the Pioneers dropped their first game of the season last week to Desert Mountain, but these teams enter with a combined record of 17-1.
Seton Catholic looks to wrap up a perfect regular season in Div. IV against Bourgade Catholic.
Bubble games include: Corona del Sol-Hamilton, Mountain Pointe-Westwood, St. Mary’s-Alhambra, Mesquite-Deer Valley, Gilbert-Dobson, Notre Dame-Horizon, Higley-Arcadia, Paradise Valley-Fountain Hills, and Campo Verde-Vista Grande could all have playoff implications.
Corona del Sol: A year after going 1-10, the Aztecs beat Mesquite on Friday for their fifth win in nine games, seemingly giving them a decent chance at making the postseason. The Aztecs will be crunching numbers after next week’s game against Hamilton, but just being in the discussion is a welcome sight after a tumultuous season a year ago.
Highland: After an 0-5 start, the Hawks have won four in a row. They trailed Mesa by four points at the half on Friday but scored 21 unanswered and went on to win, 31-21. The players could have packed it in after the rough start, but give Highland credit for salvaging a decent season.
Marcus Brantley: The Red Mountain running back/safety had quite the game against Skyline. He rushed the ball just three times, but did plenty of damage, racking up 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He was even more impressive on defense, returning a fumble 47 yards for a touchdown and an interception 25 yards for a score.
Pinnacle: The Pioneers had a 21-point fourth quarter lead and a two-touchdown advantage with 6:08 remaining, but Desert Mountain scored five touchdowns in the last quarter for a 35-28 comeback win. Pinnacle would have been undefeated heading into the regular season finale against 9-0 Brophy, but now will need to regroup after the surprising loss to a 3-6 Wolves team.
Paradise Valley: The Trojans are right on the Division III playoff bubble, but were dealt a tough blow in a loss to Cactus Shadows. The Trojans fell behind by three touchdowns and then couldn’t get a second-and-goal snap off as time ran out in a 49-42 loss. The Falcons were just 2-6 heading into the game, and Paradise Valley needed to take care of business in this one.