One of Tucson’s best teams in the history of high school football in this city may have lost last night but for what they are, at their level, they are champions.
Salpointe coach Dennis Bene’s continuous cries of “Hey, keep your chins up. Keep your chins up!” to his crestfallen team after the 42-16 loss to Scottsdale Saguaro at Arizona Stadium carried more meaning than a coach simply trying to lift the spirits of young players.
Bene wanted to let his guys know that the game did not define them or their 13-1 season, not even close.
“The kids gave us everything they had, man,” Bene said.
Scottsdale Saguaro should be competing at a different classification.
Just like it is obvious that Central Florida should not be thought of as being as dominant as Alabama.
This is three years in a row now that Saguaro has beaten Salpointe soundly in the playoffs on the way to a state title, the last two years in the championship game at Arizona Stadium. That is not entirely Salpointe’s fault.
Saguaro has won six consecutive state championships. Six in a row. When does the AIA draw the line and configure these schools a better way? I heard talk after last night’s game that the AIA may develop a super conference for those 4A to 6A schools who continue to dominate their classifications.
It is the same idea that the Power 5 schools in college football should have their own title and the Group of Five and the rest of the mid-majors in college football should have a separate championship. Makes sense. As it is, a Group of Five team has an unrealistic chance at making the College Football Playoff, so why not reward a program like Central Florida with a deserving championship in a separate setup?
Salpointe kept the game tight through the first half last night, trailing 21-13 at halftime. The 13 points by the Lancers at that point were one more than the Sabercats allowed in their three previous playoff games combined (Saguaro outscored Goodyear Estrella Foothills, Glendale Cactus and Goodyear Desert Edge 172-12).
But as time went on, Scottsdale Saguaro’s talent pool of 23 Division I college prospects and linemen on both sides that resemble the next level, the Sabercats wore the Lancers down.
“These games get won and lost I think at the line of scrimmage,” Bene said. “They’ve always been tremendous up front. I’m just really proud of our kids. We played as hard as we could.”
Saguaro senior tackle Roland Walker is 6-foot-2 and 305 pounds and fellow senior Jelani Newman is 6-3 and 298. The Sabercats have five players who weigh at least 278 pounds. Salpointe has only two and the drop off from sophomore Jonah Miller at 6-6 and 285 goes all the way down to two players at 260.
Miller is Salpointe’s best lineman and he is not nearly as developed as Saguaro’s core of college-bound linemen.
Salpointe has two players bound for a Power 5 program — junior running back Bijan Robinson and junior safety Lathan Ransom — but they could only do so much against Saguaro’s 23 players of similar caliber at their positions.
A snapshot of the game was Robinson tackled for no gain on 4th-and-1 on a fourth-quarter possession. Not many can stop Robinson with his 2,400 yards rushing this season on 170 carries. Saguaro managed to do that. But the Sabercats, for as good as they are, still allowed Robinson to gain 155 yards on 27 carries last night.
Ransom shined as well in front of a throng of college recruiters, including Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin and ASU coach Herm Edwards, tying for the team lead with eight tackles — most of the bone-jarring variety — including a tackle for loss.
What prompted Bene to shout to his players to keep their chins up was the effort of everyone, most of whom are not as visible as Robinson, Ransom, Miller and Mario Padilla (a tough-to-tackle running back who unfortunately did not play in the second half last night because of a foot injury).
Junior linebacker Trent Strong, son of former Arizona catcher Steve Strong, who was part of the Wildcats’ 1986 College World Series title team, played relentlessly tying Ransom with eight tackles.
Quarterback Devin Green, a senior, played one of his best games completing 14 of 23 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown. That scoring strike was a 33-yard pass to junior Dae han Chang, who led the Lancers with four receptions for 69 yards.
When Salpointe was awarded the second-place trophy last night, a few of the players hoisted it in the air in championship style. They kept their chins up.
It felt appropriate.