Much like the 2008 edition that finished 8-3, the 2010 Mountain Ridge football team returns the components for a potent passing attack and a speedy, ball-hawking defense.
Everyone in the program, however hopes things are a bit different in November. Since the Arizona Interscholastic Association instituted the current division setup in 2005, the Mountain Lions have qualified for the 5A-I playoffs every year.
And every year, Mountain Ridge has bowed out in the first round.
“We want to go deep in the playoffs,” senior wide receiver/defensive end Josh Skadeland said. “As long as we can remember, it’s been one and done in the playoffs.”
There are reasons to think this team can break the streak. One is simple math — 15 starters return, several of them all-region players for a 5-6 squad. And another can’t be measured.
“This team — maybe more than any since I’ve been here as a head coach — has a lot of team chemistry,” said coach Bobby Green. “They’re very unselfish. I think it’s really going to show on the field.”
It also helps to have experience under center. Hunter Young split time with Cougar Beaubien for the first seven games of 2009, before leading the Mountain Lions through a season-saving 3-0 stretch. Beaubein left for rival Sandra Day O’Connor.
In those final three wins, Young averaged 221 yards passing and tossed seven touchdowns. He couldn’t crack Phoenix Brophy Prep’s defense in last year’s playoff game, but the late-season sprint portends big things for Young’s senior campaign.
“As he matured through the season, he won the job,” Green said. “He has a real grasp of the offense and he exudes that confidence. The rest of the players look up to him as a leader and chose him as one of the captains. Watching his maturity and progression through the summer, he’s grown leaps and bounds.”
Young has a good rapport with the wideouts. Seniors Jonathan Matter (39 catches for 477 yards) and Nicholas Perez (29 catches for 260 yards) can get open over the middle, while Skadeland, at 6-4, provides an inviting red-zone target (five touchdowns).
And all the seniors are now comfortable in Mountain Ridge’s spread offense, which requires precision routes and throws.
“We’re pretty much a passing team, so timing is most important,” Matter said. “We all started last year, too, so that got us experience.”
However, the goal this year is to rely a bit less on the passing game. Senior tailback P.J. Sparks has shown flashes in the last two seasons, and will not be carrying the ball a mere 10 times per game again.
Sparks is a big-play threat, with two touchdown runs of more than 60 yards in 2009. This year, he’ll have help from sophomore Tre Favors.
“This is the first time we’re going into the season with a balanced attack,” Green said. “I think (offensive coordinator Nate) Carr has done an awesome job of instituting that. In the past we’ve been one-dimensional with the pass.”
The offensive line is Mountain Ridge’s major question mark. Center Wade Wright transferred to Scottsdale Chaparral, leaving only seniors Michael Pitts and Kyle Keswick as returning starters.While the line is inexperienced, and most of the blockers are in the 210-pound range, Green said it has potential. Cave Creek Cactus Shadows transfer Jacob Abedrabbo stepped in nicely.
“They did real well in (summer) big man competitions,” Green said. “They took third up NAU, so we’re expecting some good things from them.”
The defense is also dotted with returning starters, and that experience allows Mountain Ridge to explore the nuances of its 3-5-3 scheme.
“We can put in more complex stuff. Last year with us being more young we had to keep things simplistic,” Green said. “We’re allowing (defensive coordinator) Austin Martin to do more complex things. I think we’re way ahead of where we were last year.”
While the defensive line is also on the smallish side, it does have a 240-pound anchor in all-region nose guard Jesse Brown. Senior Tanner Wright is the top defensive end, and Skadeland will see some time up front as well.
Junior linebacker Spencer Hammitt (107 tackles) led the defense in stops last year, and paces another unit that learned on the job in 2009. Fellow junior Taylor Rockwood also started in 2009, while seniors Logan Irsik and Eric Hoffman and junior Jared Moses gained experience.
“With our linebacker corps and our secondary having a lot of speed — three of our guys were on the 4x100 meter team that competed at state — that means the 3-5 fits us.”
The sprinting secondary leads with a pair of senior corners, Lucan Gardona and Garrett Fore-Aldrete, with two years of starting experience. Junior safety Cameron Fortuna was yet another sophomore in the starting lineup. Matter will lend a hand to the starters in the defensive backfield.
While having so much experience is nice, Green said he’s most excited about how the team matured, which showed in its final four games.
The final three wins propelled the Mountain Lions into the playoffs. Once there, they battled No. 3 seed Brophy for three quarters before two late touchdowns gave the Broncos a 24-0 win.
“We had such a small senior class last year that we were forced to play a lot of younger guys. So they got a lot of experience against some good competition,” Green said. “The Brophy game really set us for the offseason. They gained a lot of confidence and we did really well against them even though we lost.”