A semifinal appearance can be a difficult landing point.
Many believe it is harder to prepare for than a state title game because the idea of being one more win away from playing for the championship can actually be more daunting than the championship matchup itself.
It is hard to know for sure, but one thing is — winning one is heck of a lot more enjoyable than losing one.
The Mountain Pointe football program and coach Norris Vaughan know a lot more about falling short in the semifinals than coming through as the top-seeded Pride get ready to face No. 4 Brophy on Friday at McClintock with a berth to the Division I championship game on the line.
“It’s only a bigger game than any other if you make it that way,” Vaughan said. “If you let it be something other than that then the (players) won’t play up to their capability. I approach every practice and game like it is for a state championship so this should be no different.”
The Pride has never made it past the semifinals, losing in 1995, 2009 and 2010, while Vaughan has taken three different programs to the semifinals for a total of seven appearances with only one victory.
This is Vaughan’s third trip to the semis since taking over the Pride (11-1) before the 2009 season. The other appearance by Mountain Pointe, which lost 54-28 in the regular season to the Broncos, ended with a loss to eventual champion St. Mary’s when Karl Kiefer was roaming the sidelines in 1995.
“We’ve done some good things, but it takes a lot of things to win a state title, including being a little lucky and being healthy,” said Vaughan, who lost 28-21 to Coolidge in the 2006 title game with Wickenburg after beating Seton Catholic 28-23 in the semis. “We are playing really good right now. It’s going to take a couple more to get it done.”
Vaughan, who took Wickenburg to three semis and South Forsyth (Ga. in 2001) to one, has seen firsthand how cruel a loss in the semifinals can be while having to look his players in the eyes in the team huddle afterward.
Some were harder than others.
Wickenburg had its two top running backs get hurt in 2008 and didn’t have the depth or passing game to keep the Payson defense honest.
The hardest might have very well been the 2009 loss against Mesa. The Pride was undefeated and the heavy favorite. The Mesa defense was good and played a great game to shut down the Pride running game.
It’s definitely the one that got away.
“I don’t have any regrets other than the Mesa game,” Vaughan said. “All of the other ones we lost to better teams.”
Playing without regret is one of things the Pride needs to know heading into the game against the 11-2 Broncos, who have made the title game five times and won it twice (2005 and 2007).
If the players can walk off the field knowing they played their best game without regret, everything else will fall into place.
“We are treating it like any other game, but I think I play better under pressure,” said senior running back/defensive back Thomas Warren. “Everyone knows it is a big game. There are only four teams left and if we don’t play like we can then we won’t get another game.”
Warren and junior Jalen Brown are two holdovers from the 2010 team that lost 34-10 to Hamilton in the semis.
“I feel confident and ready,” Brown said. “There is some pressure for some kids. You can’t get nervous or scared of the limelight. We just have to stay together as a team and play like we have all year long.”
If it comes together like that against Brophy the semifinals might end up being a spring board instead of a landing point for the Pride.
“I think they have the most talent and they are loaded, but we are playing good right now,” Vaughan said. “It should be a great game and I think either team can win. Every close game comes down to a few plays and whoever wins those plays is probably going to win the game.”
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