The class clown inside A.J. Thigpen will never disappear. It’s been there since grade school, and part of his makeup. He still pulls occasional pranks.
Hamilton’s senior quarterback also learned being this school’s quarterback is a big responsibility, and he carries all its perks and pitfalls around with him on a daily basis.
A sit-down with coaches before the season left Thigpen with the impression he needed to curtail some of the clowning around, and he, along with the offense he runs, has grown up a bit.
It’s not always pretty, not always easy to watch, sometimes not very effective. As was the case last week and in August, the Hamilton defense had to save the night. A couple times, the Huskies couldn’t do it and lost consecutive games in a season for the first time in school history.
Yet it’s also Thigpen and Hamilton’s offense which saved the night against Basha, Chandler, Desert Vista and countless other stretches during the Huskies’ 11-game winning streak this season as No. 3 Hamilton gets a rematch with No. 1 Mountain Pointe on Saturday afternoon for the Division I state championship at University of Phoenix Stadium.
With Hamilton and Mountain Pointe’s defensive resumes this season, the offense was viewed as something of an afterthought this week, even a hindrance based on recent memory. In this case, it’s that Hamilton didn’t exactly set the field on fire in a 21-7 win against Desert Ridge in last week’s semifinal. It’s often only about what was most recently remembered.
“If you win it’s glory, if you lose you’re terrible,” Thigpen said. “We were 0-2 and everyone was going crazy, but I knew I had the team with me.”
As offensive coordinator Deke Schutes noted this week, Thigpen barely saw the field as a junior in 2011 – Travis Dixon is the only two-year starter at Hamilton in the past decade – and against top competition in Mountain Pointe and in Ireland, an adjustment period of both Thigpen and coaches’ discovering his strengths and weaknesses wasn’t unexpected on the part of the Huskies, even with most of its offensive line returning from last year.
“He’s grown up a lot,” senior offensive lineman Patrick Joseph said. “He’s had to. It’s a tough position to play here sometimes.”
Changes had to be made. The team returned from the loss to Notre Dame (Calif.) in Ireland, the Huskies had committed four turnovers in the loss, combined with a couple more costly cough-ups in the Mountain Pointe season-opener. Schutes had Thigpen think long and hard before he wrote down five running plays and five passing plays Thigpen could best execute: QB option runs, bootleg passes, an occasional deep throw, etc.
The Huskies tailored the playbook accordingly. Schutes said the Huskies now use about 60 percent of their playbook with which to achieve their goal of 150 rushing yards and 150 passing yards per game (aside from the obvious of scoring points).
“We wouldn’t be here without A.J., no question about it,” Schutes said. “There’s no question he’s our best quarterback and he’s got a pretty good demeanor. We’ve gotten on him pretty good at times as coaches and he hasn’t flinched.”
Deceptively fast – he ran away from Desert Ridge’s defensive backs during last week’s 58-yard touchdown run on a QB option that sealed the win and tough for one person to tackle, mobility and knowing where he can throw ahead of time are strengths over reading through progressions.
Teammates might expect some hijinx if Hamilton wins on Saturday (they might already be waiting for it). It’d be both redemption for what happened to Hamilton at this time last year against an Ahwatukee school, and his release from the pressure of playing his position at this school.
“They expect a lot out of me, but I have enough ability to expect a lot out of myself and manage expectations,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility to carry out the tradition of winning.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.