There were times throughout the year that Desert Ridge looked to be an afterthought when it came to the state championship conversation.
Circumstances change, teams evolve, players get healthy and wins accumulate.
And here the Jaguars are – just 48 minutes of football away from winning the program’s first state championship.
Desert Ridge put it all together at the right time to make the program’s second state title with a 24-21 win over Chandler, the same team the Jaguars lost 60-39 to in September.
“Boy, we rose above,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “I think we shocked the whole entire state and maybe even part of the country.”
Fourth-seeded Desert Ridge (11-2) will face No. 6 Centennial (11-2) on Friday at University of Phoenix Stadium with a 3 p.m. kickoff.
Centennial (11-2 officially but really 10-3 after given a forfeit by Long Beach Poly for using an ineligible player) was on the early season short list after bringing back many of the starters from the 2014 Division II champs.
Title talk quieted when the Coyotes lost the season finale 34-33 to rival Liberty. Instead it developed into one of those perfectly timed defeats.
“Losing to Liberty set us straight,” Coyotes senior running back Quentin Gomez said. “We were playing OK, but it showed us that we had to dig down deeper. We found what we needed.”
The Jaguars, who finished as state runners-up in 2010, have won six in a row, but there was a stretch in the middle of the season that a state title game appearance seemed distant.
Desert Ridge led Mountain Pointe 17-13 at halftime on Oct. 9, but lost 25-17. The following week the Jaguars were down 20-0 in the first half to Red Mountain before pulling out a 24-20 win.
Put those two back-to-back halves together (on the bad side of a 32-3 scoring output), and Desert Ridge looked like a lower-rung DI squad rather than semifinalist for the fifth time in six years.
The team rebounded in the second half against the Mountain Lions and have played like a championship squad ever since, returning to a running game that better suits their talent and mentality, to sit one game away from winning it all.
“They started out the year doing a lot of different things, throwing the ball a lot,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “Then they decided, ‘We’re not going to do that.’ We’re going to run and there’s nothing wrong with five yards at a time. That is what works well for them. Their offensive line is very good and very stout.”
It won’t come easy against the Coyotes, who knocked off undefeated Mountain Pointe 31-21 with relative ease to make their first big-school title game after dominating Division II/Class 5A Division II for a decade with Scottsdale Chaparral.
“All we do is run, run, run,” Centennial 6-foot-6, 275-pound offensive tackle Tanner Hawthorne said. “We wore (Mountain Pointe) down and knew the fourth quarter was going to be ours. We are playing for the championship.”
The teams are similar – a physical mentality with rather large offensive lines and defense that brings tons of disruptive pressure – but haven’t met since 2008 when Centennial crushed the Jaguars 35-7 in the 5AII quarterfinals.
Years have come off the calendar and those players are long gone, but the coaches remain.
“They’re a lot like us,” Hathcock said. “They’re gritty, they’re bigger than us but, whatever, everybody’s bigger than us. I think the thing is they run the ball, we run the ball, it’s going to be an hour-and-45-minute state championship game and whoever makes the least amount of mistakes is going to win.”
The Jaguars defensive front, especially the highly touted defensive line led by D.J Davidson, Jalen Harris and Andre Elmore, will be tested by the imposing Centennial line that clears plenty of space for Gomez and running mate John Rincon.
Only Centennial could lose a guard going to ASU next year (6-3, 285-pound senior Marshall Nathe) and get bigger on the offensive line. Junior Andrew Ruelas (6-7, 320) has filled in ably since Nathe was injured during pregame warm ups Oct. 9.
“It all starts with the offseason, the weight room and offensive line vs. defensive line in practices,” senior guard Stephen Bailey said. “We know each other as people, on and off the field. So when it comes to game time we know what to expect.”
Desert Ridge’s offensive line may not receive the same amount of attention. But since the Jaguars return to run-dominated game plans after the Red Mountain comeback, they’ve averaged 216 rushing yards per game.
Centennial counters with its own pair of speedy pass rushers in Chris Jules and Andrew Nichols. There’s no 300-pound tackle like Davidson but seniors Randy Rodriguez (240) and Dylan Benson (190) are more sturdy than their weights suggest.
“Our offensive line helps us out a ton. The interior guys push each other to get better and stronger,” Benson said. “The coaches teach us a lot about technique and film study.”
On the other side of the field will be a team that hasn’t raised a trophy like the Coyotes have done four times since 2005 and waiting to put their hands on the golden football.
“We prepare for a 14-game season,” Hathcock said. That’s what we do at (preseason camp in) Winslow, we’re here now, it’s our second time (in the championship game) and hopefully we can close the deal.”
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Richard Smith contributed to this prevew