No matter what happens tonight in the Class 4A state championship game at Arizona Stadium — however dominant Scottsdale Saguaro can be with its more than 20 Division I college prospects — Salpointe Catholic’s band of brothers will remain undaunted.
“A couple of years ago we played up in 5A, and we never got a chance … but we won our fair share of games,” said Salpointe assistant head coach Al Alexander, referring to when the Lancers won the 2013 state title. “Sometimes we get outmanned, but we get our kids believing in what we do, and they excel really well in that.”
Added co-defensive coordinator Joe Bernier about the Salpointe coaching staff, the longstanding band of brothers: “A lot of times you forget that your students, your players, they reflect the leadership and when you give off that positive vibe … it’s ok to be upset with each other but at the end of the day, we’re still family, we’re still in this together, the kids feed off what we present to them and they know it’s true.
“You can’t lie to kids. They know it’s a true feeling.”
That support system for Devin Green, Bijan Robinson, Lathan Ransom, Mario Padilla, Ray Figueroa, Trent Strong, Shamon Davis, and Co., might just be what the Lancers need to have a fighting chance in the championship game at 7 p.m.
In a game that the Arizona Republic has predicted Saguaro to win yet another championship easily — by a 42-14 score — Salpointe practiced this week with a cool, calm and collected manner.
Observing their practice Wednesday, the top-seeded Lancers (13-0) did not look like a team mentally beaten because of the perceived odds stacked against them against five-time defending state champ and No. 2 seed Saguaro.
Quite the opposite.
They were just as physical, focused, fierce and loose in their drills as they were every week of their unbeaten season.
That confident state of mind comes squarely from coach Dennis Bene and his staff, many of whom have been with him for most of his 18 years at the school.
“You saw our practice today,” Alexander said matter-of-factly to me. “The kids are very confident, not overconfident. They saw the (42-14) prediction in the paper today and they thought it was hilarious. They compete at a high level. I mean, no matter who comes in here, we’re going to give them our best shot.”
Bene, one win away from 175 victories in his career, has 11 coaches on his staff with most of them volunteering their time after their own work is done elsewhere. Bernier is the lone Salpointe educator on the staff. He teaches exercise science.
The Salpointe staff:
Head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach: Dennis Bene
Assistant head coach, offensive line coach, running game coach: Al Alexander
Running backs coach: Zach Neveleff
Co-offensive line coach: John Fina
Co-offensive line coach: John Miller
Tight ends/special teams coach: Ali Farhang
Receivers coach: John Davis
Co-defensive coordinator, defensive backs coach: Joey Bernier
Co-defensive coordinator, linebackers coach: Rocco Bene
Defensive line (ends) coach: Eric Rogers
Defensive line (tackles) coach: Virgil Henderson
Kicking game coach: Pierre Arnaud
Alexander has coached with Bene for 15 years. Bernier, a 1989 Salpointe graduate, has been a part of the football coaching staff longer than all of them, dating back to Pat Welchert’s staff.
Fina may be the most well-known, a former Salpointe, Arizona and Buffalo Bills standout offensive lineman. His son Bruno Fina is a junior lineman with the Lancers.
Farhang owns a law firm in Tucson and is the Arizona Bowl founder and chairman and a co-owner of the Tucson Sugar Skulls professional indoor football team that begins its inaugural season in the spring.
Rocco Bene is the brother of Dennis Bene, who is like a big brother to all of them.
“They know my shortcomings, my impatience and I know theirs,” Dennis Bene said, especially of his longest standing assistants, Bernier and Alexander. “We’re family. We really respect each other. We love each other. I am forever grateful for the work they put in.
“We’ve watched all of our kids grow up. We’ve gone through hard times together and been there through the good times. We’re very much like brothers. You build some really strong relationships because when you work together for so long there’s highs and lows, you have to grind through that.”
Like any family, some healthy arguments take place. That happens on the sidelines, practice field and during the film sessions. That sometimes happens in public but it occurs mostly in private.
“Coach Bene always says, ‘Leave it between the lines.’ We kind of leave it downstairs, if you will,” Bernier said with a laugh. “The second we step back up, we’re back to being friends and being fathers and the role models that we should be.”
Also, as with any efficient and productive staff, varied personalities exists within Salpointe’s group of coaches. Bernier is the opposite kind of character on the sideline as Dennis Bene, for example.
They are fire (Bernier) and ice (Bene).
Bernier is the fiery vocal leader while Bene is steady and cool, for the most part, with some intensity mixed in.
“They call me Napoleon, the little guy with the big mouth,” Bernier said laughing. “But any given day, roles can reverse really quick. We can sense when one coach needs to back off or another coach needs to step in and pat them on the backside.
“So it’s nice to know each other and get a feel for that.”
Another unique situation for Salpointe’s coaching staff: Generally when somebody on a staff has been a coach for 15 or more years, such as Bernier and Alexander, they are former head coaches who are helping out a program in the twilight of their careers.
Neither Bernier or Alexander have experienced that. Neither to this day have felt the urge to head their own program because of the program Salpointe presents under Bene.
“There’s no better program in Tucson,” Alexander said. “In Southern Arizona, what I’m looking for, I don’t need the glory of being a head coach.
“I am the assistant head coach here. I get as much leeway here as I would heading another program. What I’m looking for, I can’t compare to here. I don’t need to be a head coach. I get satisfaction out of what I’m doing here helping the kids. We’ve got great kids, man.”
Put it this way: Many head coaches in Southern Arizona in the last two decades have come and gone who are likely envious of the longevity a core such has the Benes, Alexander and Bernier have established at Salpointe.
The Lancers know what to expect out of their coaches leading up to the championship game against Saguaro the same way they did for the opener at Mesa Dobson back on Aug. 24.
The players also have the continuity and familiarity with this staff from last year’s 28-7 loss to Saguaro in the championship and the 24-3 loss to the Sabercats in the 2016 state semifinals.
“Each year is its own animal, if you will,” Bernier said. “We just have to stick with what we do, what we’re doing well. When you play a great team and great dynasty like Saguaro, you can’t get overwhelmed with the lights, the names, the sizes … We just have to play our game like we have been doing the last six weeks or so.
“The kids have bought in to what we’re trying to do and the process has really paid off for us.”
Long after the lights are turned off at Arizona Stadium following tonight’s game, the constant belief in Bene and his staff will remain from the Lancers, the school administration, student body and community.
Saguaro and its five straight state titles can’t knock off that stature, no matter what type of talent the Sabercats possess.
They must contend with brothers whose bond can’t be measured by stars from a recruiting service. These brothers are grown men who have been through the wars many years over, some for almost as long as the players on the field tonight have been alive.
“We just focus on us. Saguaro’s a great program and they deserve all the accolades and all those kinds of things, but we feel like we have great kids,” Bene said. “I most certainly have a tremendous staff that works very hard and has been working very hard since January, quite honestly.”
“Working with guys you trust, you care about, makes it so much fun,” he added. “We’re together seven days a week during the season and we enjoy each other’s company. That hasn’t gotten old. … At the end of the day, it’s loyalty and love and common respect that gets you through it.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.