How can you not root for the Red Mountain High School football team to at least get to the state finals?
Even if you still have a dog in the race, so to speak, there’s something about an underdog that tugs at everyone’s heart. Especially one that has to overcome an early beating to rise back up. The Mountain Lions lost their first two games on the schedule, the second a heart-breaking one-point loss to Hamilton High.
But they rebounded with four straight victories and tonight are within two games of a state championship.
The other teams still in the hunt for this year’s 6A state title all posted double-digit wins: No. 1 seed Mountain Pointe High School (12-0), No. 2 Chandler High (10-2), and No. 3 Perry High (11-1). But Red Mountain’s 6-4 finish to the regular season earned them a No. 13 seed in the playoffs and apparent little hope of going deep this year.
But that all changed when the Lions took out fourth-seeded Skyline High School in the opening round, squeezing out a 16-13 win. They had to beat a team that had already beaten them since Skyline won the first meeting in late October by an almost identical score, 17-14.
Next up was perennial big-school power Brophy Prep, the No. 5 seed. The Wolves won that game by a single point, 34-33, to be able to advance to the semifinals – where it now gets even more difficult. Tonight they face top-seeded Mountain Pointe, which has averaged 49 points in its first two playoff games as the undefeated Pride rolled into the semis for the seventh time in eight years.
But Red Mountain head coach Ron Wisneiwski can’t just focus on the potent Pride offense since their defense, which plays a very physical game and is among the fastest in the conference, is just as challenging. Just ask fifth-seeded Desert Vista High School. Mountain Pointe beat the Thunder, 47-21, in last week’s quarterfinal game by scoring four defensive touchdowns.
Senior safety Isaiah Pola-Mao intercepted Desert Vista freshman QB Matthew Purnell three times, returning two picks for a score. Junior Khalif Ravenell recovered a fumble and took it in for another TD, and senior defensive back Antwaun Woodberry capped the scoring with another pick-six.
The 6’4″ Pola-Mao has been a threat to offenses throughout his prep career. His two interceptions against Desert Vista makes him the school’s all-time leader in that category with 17 total.
Fortunately for Red Mountain, it doesn’t have to rely too heavily on its passing game. The Lions have a running game that averages 210 yards a game, with a 1,000-yard rusher in the backfield. Junior Lance Lawson – who plays quarterback, running back and slot receiver – has piled up 2,045 yards playing in all but one game this season.
Lawson gets the majority of his yardage on the ground, with passing accounting for just 623 of the total yards. He leaves that to the other QB he rotates with, Austin Duffy. The junior has thrown for 1,370 yards in 10 games.
In last week’s quarterfinal victory over Brophy, Lawson rushed for 210 yards and five touchdowns, while also scoring the game-winning TD on a 33-yard run late in the fourth quarter. The rest of the team accounted for the other 57 yards of offense.
The Lions may find their biggest challenge will be getting Lawson on the field enough to be a game-changer. Mountain Pointe has one of the best offensive lines in the state that enables an explosive ground game, but can also control the clock.
Mountain Pointe lost its starting quarterback and star running back to injuries back in early October. RB Gary Bragg tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a game against Pinnacle High School and QB Noah Grover suffered a broken leg against Highland High School. Sophomore Nick Wallerstedt stepped in to take over the signal-calling and the team hasn’t missed a beat.
Grover was averaging 176 passing yards a game and had already passed the 1,000-yard mark. Bragg was averaging nine yards a carry and almost certain to also have a 1,000-yard season.
For this game, the Red Mountain coaching staff has had to prepare to defend against both Wallerstedt and Grover since Pride head coach Norris Vaughan said there is the possibility that Grover will be able to make his return for tonight’s game.
Oh well, you can’t expect things to come easy when you’re the ‘Cinderella’ team.
But this last pothole on the road to the ball next week will likely prove to be too big to get past.