A year ago, Mesquite’s football team had turned in their uniforms and was about to go through the process of finding a new coach.
This week, more coaches from around town have been at Mesquite’s practices. The tone is serious, the pressure of this situation – a Div. II semifinals appearance against No. 2 Chaparral on Friday night at Gilbert High School – has been felt.
The bigger picture here should be a reinforcement of how far the Wildcats have come and what they’ve done in this turnaround season (the school’s first semifinals appearance and the most wins in its history).
It’s the fourth consecutive year these schools have faced each other, but it’s a different world now from what most kids (especially the Wildcats) are accustomed to, and while Jones and some of his staff have been here before, there’s only so much they can say to a bunch of teenagers.
“We have to be able to do the same thing and everyone has to take it to another level, it’s now the best of everybody,” Mesquite coach Jim Jones. “Just normal and average play isn’t going to work anymore. The whole week has been pretty serious and pretty focused.”
In last week’s lost lead-turned-overtime-win against No. 7 Campo Verde, the Wildcats took away the positive of kids being resilient in the end when a 17-0 halftime lead vanished, an important trait for every team which has its sight set on a championship.
But the Firebirds are a different animal, both in their experience and skill-position players. Elijah Castro, Tyler Whiley, Izzy Simpson and Trevor Wood have been bigtime playmakers for Chaparral all season – whether Sean Paul Brophy or Chandler Fox has been the team’s quarterback.
“We’ve got a tough road ahead of us,” Jones said of Chaparral. “They’re the real deal.”
The defense, however, has made it’s hay in 2013. An experienced group from a year ago which suffered some growing pains (and an early playoff exit), the unit was beaten soundly by Marcos de Niza in Week 1, but has returned to the unyielding ways from its championship runs of a couple years ago. Hayden Pate has been unstoppable up front at times, with Joe Nauert, Whiley, Jack Basham, Michael Rice and Brandon Jamison have played key roles.
“We have to make them make plays and go the length of the field,” Chaparral coach Dave Huffine said. “Sometimes field position isn’t a bad thing. We have to tackle well, if that happens I think we’ll be in good shape.”
Rain is in the forecast – and what season would be complete without a playoff week in slop – and that could be an equalizer of sorts. The Firebirds say they have some game plan contingencies in place should relentless rain arrive.
Huffine called Mesquite’s Jordan Robinson (who made the game-preserving interception in overtime last week to set up the game-winning score) and Juan Giraldo, “are the best safeties we’ll see all year,” in Huffine’s mind.
Mesquite already knows a relentless Chaparral team will arrive to the Gilbert area - with or without Mother Nature’s interference – but the Wildcats have taken on their coach’s persona from the start, and it’s worked pretty well so far.
What’s one more week?
“We have a good line and good skill people, maybe we can make it an interesting game,” Jones said. “You have to consider that knowing the history and their program, but we’re going to show up and see what happens.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.