The good news for Gilbert High this year: It didn’t have to play Phoenix Mountain Pointe.
The bad news: It played Chandler, Chandler Hamilton and Mesa Desert Ridge.
“A murderous schedule,” Gilbert High coach Tim Rutt said.
No question, but the games have given Rutt a window into Friday’s semifinals, and he has some strong opinions on the Chandler-Hamilton game and the Desert Ridge-Mountain Pointe matchup.
“It’ll be a battle,” Rutt said. “Hamilton’s great defense against Chandler’s great offense.”
Rutt said this is the best Chandler team he’s seen. The reason: It plays better defense than it has in the past — Mountain Pointe is the only in-state team to score more than 21 points against the Wolves — and it’s much more disciplined.
“Before, Chandler would always make mistakes at the end of big games,” Rutt said. “But (coach) Shaun (Aguano) has done a great job keeping them focused. They don’t seem to make the mistakes they used to.”
Rutt also believes Chandler will be emboldened by its 26-16 victory over Hamilton in early October, a game that snapped its 17-game losing streak to the Huskies.
“It took the monkey off their back,” he said. “If they lost, they would have gone into this game thinking ‘Here we go again’ if something went wrong. It made them a true contender.”
Hamilton’s best chance to slow Chandler down, Rutt said, is to get an early lead and force Wolves’ quarterback Bryce Perkins to throw the ball. Perkins has gaudy numbers — 70 percent completion rate, 24 touchdowns and just six interceptions — but so does Phoenix Pinnacle’s Brian Lewerke, and when Hamilton got a significant lead Friday, its pass rush led by Qualen Cunningham and Santana Sterling harassed Lewerke into throwing three interceptions, one fewer than he had thrown all season.
“Hamilton’s defense is by far the best defense we played,” Rutt said. “They’re just so strong up front. If Chandler gets a lead, it’s going to be tough for Hamilton to come back. But if Hamilton can get some stops and make Perkins throw the ball … he’s not a great thrower.”
So, which team will move on to the state championship game? Rutt had to think about that one.
“Oh, man. Boy. If my life depended on it, I’d probably have to go with Hamilton,” he said. “I just know that defensive front they have is unreal. They’ll stop that offense.”
Mountain Pointe-Desert Ridge
Mountain Pointe has been unchallenged much of the season — Hamilton is the only in-state school to lose by fewer than 24 points — but Rutt believes that could change Friday because of Desert Ridge’s ability to punish defenses with its running game.
“They’re absolutely, downright the meanest, most physical team we played all year,” Rutt said. “I lost 10 starters in that game. They just come at you, they will drive you back, they will just destroy you.”
OK, but can a one-dimensional attack — Desert Ridge has thrown the ball just 71 times all year — be effective against a Mountain Pointe defense that is fast and physical itself and has allowed only 99 points in 12 games?
“Some of our coaches were talking (Friday) night and Mountain Pointe’s weakness is defending the run right up the gut and Desert Ridge’s strength is its running game,” Rutt said. “You have to load up the line to try to stop Desert Ridge, and Mountain Pointe doesn’t have that defensive-line strength.”
Mountain Pointe’s biggest challenge: trying to slow down Desert Ridge running back Taren Morrison, who had 358 rushing yards against Phoenix Brophy Prep on Friday and has 2,470 yards and 38 touchdowns for the season. Rutt said Morrison reminds him of former Tucson Sunnyside running back Fred Sims, who went on to play at Oklahoma.
“He’s unreal, probably the best back I’ve seen in the state in a long time,” Rutt said. “It also doesn’t hurt to have that line he has in front of him.”
Rutt is still picking Mountain Pointe — “I don’t see anybody beating them,” he said — but he gives Desert Ridge a puncher’s chance.
“The only team I think can beat Mountain Pointe is Desert Ridge,” he said. “They’re the only team I think can touch them.”
Reach Bordow at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/sBordow.