It’s Hamilton vs. Ahwatukee next Saturday afternoon for that darned golden ball, a Division I state championship game between the Huskies and newcomers Mountain Pointe that has every bit the potential for being epic. Given Hamilton’s dominance in recent years, when was the last time we thought that before a big-school championship game?
Not last year. The Huskies beat up Desert Vista in the regular season, were loaded with talent and title-game experience and the Thunder were newbies to Glendale’s spaceship stadium. Of course, we know how that turned out.
Not in 2011. The Huskies were still significant favorites against a reconstructed Desert Ridge team, and the Huskies were figured to swallow up the Jaguars’ prolific running attack. Of course, Hamilton won, but it was anything but a runaway. The Huskies were big favorites in 2009 against feel-good Mesa.
Perhaps it was 2008 against Brophy when there was this close of a pregame, prospective matchup.
May the better running team win. Both teams are well-versed in the running game. Mountain Pointe has one of the best offensive lines in the state with Kenny Lacy and Natrell Curtis, and a two-headed monster in Garette Craig and Thomas Warren (combined 2,600 yards, 40 total touchdowns). The passing game with southpaw junior Antonio Hinojosa, Jalen Brown, Craig and Dejhon Edwards is where the Pride can also make some hay. Brown set a school record with 18 touchdown catches but will have a tough time against Cole Luke and the Huskies secondary. It all starts with running the ball, whether the line can protect and Hinojosa can fight through the nerves and wide-eyedness and make good decisions. Hamilton’s offense is equally capable running the ball with Kevin Walters, Luke, Frankie Felix and some designed runs for quarterback AJ Thigpen. The Huskies get dangerous with their speed and deception when the running game works, as evidenced by Thigpen’s 58-yard clinching touchdown run on a QB keeper because Desert Ridge flew to the running back on the fake, but Huskies coach Steve Belles felt the offense didn’t show up in Friday’s semifinal win over Desert Ridge (he’s right). It’s often been a struggle for Hamilton’s passing game when the deep ball is covered off play-action and Thigpen has been corraled in the pocket while unable to escape running. If given time, Izzy Simpson and Tyler Eggers can be playmakers for Hamilton’s receiving corps.
Advantage: Mountain Pointe
Stalemate here and where both teams bread its butter. Hamilton’s front four is active, led by Qualen Cunningham and Ethan Hendricks. The linebackers are outstanding with Santana Sterling and Luke Parrish. The secondary is top-notch, led by do-everything Luke and Levi Sterling (Santana’s twin brother, though based on size you’d never know it) and Jalen Jenkins. Desert Ridge showed even a solid ground game will eventually get eaten up by the Huskies’ speed and tackling without any threat of a passing game. Mountain Pointe’s defense might actually be faster, with the Payne boys (Wesley and Landry) and Travonn White more than capable of wreaking havoc, and of course, Jalen Brown in the secondary. Charlie Trevino has bee solid at linebacker and the Pride are tough to move up front because of their size along the defensive line. Hamilton might try counter plays and quick changes of direction to slow Mountain Pointe’s pursuit.
Mountain Pointe has been solid most of the season in the kicking and return games in not allowing the big play, as White does most of the punt return duties and Craig on kickoffs. Ryan Sheehan kicked the game-winning field goal against Hamilton in the Pride’s Week 2 win over Hamilton, though there have been a couple periods of problems for Mountain Pointe on special teams this season. One of the lost parts of Hamilton’s win against Desert Ridge on Friday was the Huskies ability to pin the Jaguars deep in their own territory. Thigpen and the offense struggled mightily but his punts were outstanding in distance and height to allow the return team time to get down field. And whether the Pride want to kick to Luke remains to be seen, though doing so is not often a good decision.
It’s water-cooler talk, and thus, often meaningless come kickoff, but let’s throw it out there anyway. Both teams are going to empty the playbook, a trick play or two is likely to emerge. Both teams are very well-coached. Hamilton has what it calls “unfinished business” after last year’s title game debacle against an Ahwatukee school, and you can bet the checking account that Hamilton will go back to work and change a few things up not only from the first meeting (Hamilton’s offense is better than it was in Week 2, even if it didn’t show Friday night) and from Friday’s offensive M.I.A. Mountain Pointe, too, will try and play the “everyone-takes-Hamilton” card and the Pride have never played in this atmosphere (which doesn’t feel like such a big deal after what Desert Vista did last year). Whichever team doesn’t turn the ball over or commit 10 penalties has the best chance. Half the time, it’s a big play or two from someone unheralded who becomes a hero.