Danny Siaumau was just looking for a spot on Mesa Desert Ridge’s football team this summer after moving from Samoa. Then a bicycle accident set him back. Then he struggled at safety.
Coach Jeremy Hathcock was set in the backfield with tailback J.J. Husar moving over from Chandler Basha, and electrifying twins Tareq (quarterback) and Taren (running back) Morrison joining the team.
“There was no place for him,” Hathcock said.
Now Siaumau is the go-to guy in the offense as a featured back playing in the biggest game of his life Friday night against Chandler Hamilton for the right to play in the Division I championship game next week at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Because of season-ending knee injuries to Husar and Tareq Morrison (both 1,000-yard rushers), Hathcock has turned to Siaumau for yards. It started Oct. 5 when he ran for 97 yards on 11 carries against Basha, after Taren Morrison had to leave with a broken hand.
Since then, Siaumau has been averaging nearly 10 yards a carry.
“J.J. helps me on the sideline,” Siaumau said. “He tells me what I should do, builds up my confidence.”
In Nogales, coach Vince Villanucci noticed something missing in the defensive line late in the season. Before the playoffs, he called up 6-foot, 240-pound junior Michael Hernandez from junior varsity to play defensive tackle. His first varsity game came against No. 3-seed and unbeaten Tucson Sabino in the first round of the Division III playoffs. He played well and was a big factor in Nogales throttling Peoria Sunrise Mountain’s high-octane offense in a 22-8 win that put 14th-seed Nogales in the state semifinals for the first time.
“I thought, ‘Oh, man, there are a lot of fans,'” Hernandez said about his varsity debut at Sabino. “I was nervous. Some of them were pretty big. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve got to do well.’ I’m just grateful to play the game.”
Every team still standing in the five divisions has at least one kid it can point to who was least expected to come through big in the playoffs.
Nobody at Desert Ridge and Nogales saw Siaumau and Hernandez playing pivotal roles down the stretch.
“He was a little hidden treasure,” Villanucci said of Hernandez.
Siaumau was moved from safety to scout team offense earlier this season.
“He was not fitting in at safety,” Hathcock said. “He tore up our defense, though. “
Peoria Centennial coach Richard Taylor said several players have stepped into major roles unexpectedly, such as receivers Shawn Poindexter and Xavier Villanueva and 5-foot-4 kicker Joe Navarro, whom Taylor says has a “6-foot tall leg.”
Defensively, Centennial has had to adjust with highly recruited senior defensive end Marcus Farria missing the first four games.
Sam Ray took over that spot and Centennial outscored its first four opponents 247-52.
Last week, Ray plugged in at outside linebacker for three-year starter Dominique Hodge, and Ray came away as the defensive player of the game in Centennial’s Division II quarterfinal shut out of Goodyear Millennium.
Ray, 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, who has yet to receive a college offer, has played four different defensive positions this season.
“Sam has had to play a lot of positions, sometimes on short notice,” Taylor said. “Sam is a leader in tackles, sacks and forced fumbles.”
Tucson Salpointe Catholic is in the Division II semifinals for the first time since coach Dennis Bene took over the program in 2001, thanks partly to University of Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez hiring Jeff Casteel last spring to be his defensive coordinator.
He moved his family from West Virginia, where his son was a top linebacker.
Jake Casteel, a junior, has had 103 tackles, three interceptions and five fumble recoveries for top-seeded Salpointe.
“I didn’t think I’d be in Arizona,” Casteel said. “It never even crossed my mind. The game is a little bit faster. The team speed is better, better competition overall. … It feels like home now.”
Chandler Hamilton’s hidden treasure has been junior cornerback Levi Sterling.
Every team knew about Cole Luke, the other cornerback, who made All-Arizona as a junior and recently committed to Notre Dame.
When opposing coaches saw that a 5-foot-7, 160-pounder was on the other side, they told their quarterbacks to pick on him.
Sterling had the late interception to help Hamilton hold off Phoenix Desert Vista in the regular-season win.
His blocked punt in the first quarter last week was scooped up and returned for a touchdown by Luke Parrish in the 28-14 quarterfinal win over Phoenix Desert Vista.
“I think everyone looks at his height and think he can’t do it,” Hamilton coach Steve Belles said. “I’ve been on that side, seeing a short corner, thinking you can pick on him. You try and realize this kid can make some plays.”
Playmakers in the playoffs don’t necessarily have to be the stars.