Deer Valley and Mountain Ridge are experiencing a bit of role reversal heading into their rivalry game this year.
The young pups dotting the Mountain Lions’ lineup during the 30-3 loss last year are now veterans who have led the team to a 4-1 record and a No. 3 ranking in Class 5A-I by westvalleypreps.com.
“We’re holding each other to a higher standard this year,” Mountain Ridge senior wide receiver Jon Matter said. “The talent was there last year, but we didn’t really show it.”
This time, it’s the Skyhawks who are filled with junior starters and struggling to find an identity. Last week’s 30-19 comeback win against Valley Vista may have been a turning point for Deer Valley (3-3, 1-1 Northwest Region).
“Our kids are starting to buy in — starting to trust that these old men are telling them things that work,” said Deer Valley defensive coordinator Rich Hoyt. “They are beginning to let go of freelancing.”
The victory was about more than Xs and Os. It was the best job the this Skyhawk team has done of responding to adversity.
Trailing 14-3, Deer Valley was in danger of letting things slide downhill like it did in losses to Tempe Marcos de Niza (56-20) and Sandra Day O’Connor (49-13). But the team scored before halftime, and made more adjustments as part of a 27-point scoring burst.
“When one bad thing would happen before everybody would give up, nobody would do what they were coached to do,” senior left guard Logan Felix said. “This time, there was just a different feeling in the locker room. We felt like even though we were down, we could win this game and win it convincingly.”
Deer Valley’s season had the potential to go sideways for another reason last week. Coach Joe Kersting benched several starters for disciplinary reasons.
“Some of the kids needed to be disciplined last week, and Joe did a fabulous job of saying ‘hey, this is what’s right and you’re going to be punished,’’ Hoyt said. “He stuck to his guns. We played the backups and I really admire him for that. There’s a lot of guys that would compromise their values to get another W. In the long run, the W is the kind of people we become.”
Still, the Skyhawks realize they’re stepping up in class this week. Beyond a pair of big plays, Deer Valley’s defense was able to hold down the Monsoon’s attack.
That won’t be as easy against a Mountain Ridge offense more in line with that of Marcos de Niza. The Mountain Lions average 344 yards and 30 points per game.
“We’re preparing for a team that has all the weapons. They can throw it, they can run it, they’re well coached,” Hoyt said. “I’ve watched Mountain Ridge on film and they’re a very good football team. I’m impressed with their athletes, with their schemes.”
For years, the Mountain Lions have operated a pass-heavy spread offense. This team is no different, with senior quarterback Hunter Young (1,069 passing yards and 11 touchdowns) and four receivers who have between 16 and 26 receptions (Matter, Josh Skadeland, Nicholas Perez and Wes Meredith).
Matter who leads the team with 26 catches for 297 yards, said there’s opportunities to create mismatches in the passing game. Deer Valley struggled to stop O’Connor (246 yards), Marcos de Niza (205 yards) and South Mountain (263 yards) through the air.
“They have a lot of missed coverages,” Matter said. “We figure we can take advantage of that.”
The main difference for Mountain Ridge’s offense this year is the ability to consistently run the ball. Senior tailback P.J. Sparks is back and remains a big play threat, with three rushing touchdowns of 50 or more yards.
This year, Sparks is not as much of a boom-or-bust back. Mountain Ridge coach Bobby Green said that’s a tribute to Sparks, but also said the offensive line is the team’s most improved unit.
The Mountain Lions began league play with dominant victories against Anthem Boulder Creek (44-17) and Kingman (42-14). Those wins followed a competitive loss to 5A-I No. 1 Chandler Hamilton and nail-biters with Mesa Mountain View (17-11) and Gilbert (20-14 in overtime).
“I think this team has done a very good job of taking the roller-coaster of a game in stride,” Green said. “The one thing I’m most impressed with is the leadership of our seniors and the way our team has stuck together through adversity.”
To stop the visitors from posting a third straight Northwest Region blowout, Deer Valley will attempt to shorten the game and keep Mountain Ridge’s offense on the sidelines.
That matches up neatly with what the Skyhawks like to do anyway. They have a 2 to 1 run-pass ratio through six games. Junior Trae Armstrong (832 yards on 6.9 yards per carry) supplies the lightning, while junior Chris Landram (401 yards on 69 carries) brings the thunder.
To execute its game plan, Felix said the key is to neutralize senior defensive tackle Jesse Brown, the one big man on a mostly speedy, linebacker-heavy Mountain Lion defense.
“Their nose guard is a big kid, and he’s quick.” Felix said. “As long as we do what we’re coached to do, they shouldn’t be able to stop our offense.”
Each team is looking to impose its will on offense. And each side faces different challenges in terms of their mental approach.
Mountain Ridge flew under the radar for its first month of play. That’s no longer the case. As other 5A-I powers have fallen, the Mountain Lions have risen — into everybody’s top five.
“Getting ranked is not one of our goals,” Green said. “Our goals are to win region, and then get past the first round of state and make some noise. We haven’t achieved any of that yet.”
A potential showdown for the region title with O’Connor looms Oct. 15. But, as Green said, if his players can’t focus on a game with their original rival, they shouldn’t be playing football.
“They realize it’s a new (Deer Valley) team with a new coaching staff,” he said. “But, still it’s our sister school and they’re going to come out playing lights out and we’ve got to match the intensity.”
Conversely, Deer Valley must guard against letting their emotions overwhelm their ability to execute. The Skyhawks are expecting a full house.
“This is the one game everybody is going to come to. This is the one game everybody wants to win,” Felix said. “It will be packed.”