Highland flying out of the gate - East Valley Tribune: VarsityXtra

Highland flying out of the gate

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Posted: Tuesday, September 18, 2012 5:28 pm | Updated: 5:34 pm, Tue Sep 18, 2012.

It’s no surprise, really, that Mountain Pointe, Red Mountain and Desert Vista have the best records among Division I East Valley football teams since the end of last September.

All finished 2011 strong — Desert Vista won the Division I title — and the trio is ranked 1-2-3, respectively, in this week’s rankings.

So which team has the fourth-best winning percentage in that time?

Raise your hand if you picked Hamilton, Brophy, Desert Ridge or Chandler.

Wrong. Keep guessing.

Basha, Desert Mountain or Pinnacle?

Still incorrect.

It’s Highland.

Yes, the same Hawks team which started last year 0-5, the one which hasn’t made the postseason since 2008.

Highland is 7-2 since Sept. 30 of last year, including a 3-1 mark this season after beating Corona del Sol on Friday. The win over the Aztecs may have been the team’s best work to date, getting contributions from offense, defense and special teams in a 35-7 win. Last season, Corona del Sol won this matchup by 18 points.

“I definitely think that when teams come in and play us, they’ve said, “Oh, we beat them last year and we’ll beat them again,” wide receiver Billy Johnson said. “To come out and play as good as we have is nice.”

Before we get any further, let’s take a moment for a shot of reality. The fourth-best winning percentage stat is an arbitrary starting point which dovetails facts to meet a storyline, and the schedule has as much to do with the impressive nine-game run as the team’s play on the field.

While Highland has a better record in that time period than some of those elite programs, it would still be a heavy underdog in any head-to-head matchup. In fact, the Hawks will get that test against Basha on Friday, one in which they know people will be counting them out.

“We definitely don’t have the best athletes, that’s for sure,” quarterback Blake Young said. “There’s not as much pressure, though, because you’re not supposed to win. You want to go out there and get an upset.”

Highland might not currently feel like a state title contender, but the playoffs are a legitimate possibility. And while seven wins in the past nine games may not paint the entire picture, coach Pete Wahlheim sees a correlation.

Since the Hawks were effectively eliminated from playoff consideration halfway through last season after the winless start, Wahlheim began giving playing time to the youngsters in the program.

The talented group quickly made its mark, winning games against Skyline, Desert Mountain, Mountain View and Mesa before losing to Red Mountain in the season finale.

The strong finish buoyed the offseason dedication, and, as this season beckoned, the Hawks were optimistic.

“It probably played a bigger role than most people understand,” Wahlheim said. “High school is a tough place to be when you’re 0-5, but they kept grinding and never quit.”

It manifested in the season opener, a 37-0 romp over Mesquite, which was followed up by a 37-10 victory over Gilbert. The Hawks were knocked down a peg when Desert Ridge made quick work of them in Week 3, but Wahlheim said there was something off with his team.

“I knew in warmups against Desert Ridge we weren’t ready to play,” Wahlheim said.

Highland bounced back last week with the impressive win against Corona del Sol, and now gets another shot against a big boy when it travels to play Basha.

It’s been a lean three years for the program following a state quarterfinal appearance in 2008. While Highland used to have its share of elite players come through — Ryan Fitzpatrick (Buffalo Bills) and Chaz Schilens (Jets) are in the NFL — those haven’t surfaced recently, especially with Wahlheim’s preference to use homegrown players and avoid the transfer madness rampant at other schools.

“Maybe I’m getting old or something, but when our kids come into this program, they work their tails off for four years, and I’m proud of that,” Wahlheim said.

That work has translated into wins, and it’s making life sweeter.

On Mondays, the players are getting pats on the back and high-fives for their Friday night performances, and the student body is talking about the football team again.

Maybe Highland isn’t a Chandler or Ahwatukee school in terms of athletes, but this sure beats 0-5.

“We’ve had no support from the student body the past couple years,” Young said. “When we won that first game, we started getting a lot of support from them. That’s one of the biggest things to me, looking up into the stands and seeing everyone supporting us. The mood is a lot better when you get some wins.”

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