Last season, as Palm Desert football coach Pat Blackburn remembers it, the Aztecs were in a fierce battle with rival Xavier Prep as star Palm Desert running back Beau Berryhill fumbled after carrying the ball on six straight plays.
As he trotted off the field, Berryhill lamented to his coaches, “I can’t carry the ball that many times.”
Berryhill had played varsity since his sophomore year, but even then wasn’t quite ready to put the Aztecs entirely on his shoulders. The team would go on to lose to the Saints before getting blown out in the first round of the playoffs by eventual runner-up Serrano, 56-16.
Just over a year has passed, but as the Aztecs hit the road to take on Serrano in the CIF Southern Section Eastern Division semifinals on Friday, it’s clear plenty has changed for Berryhill.
“I think if you ask him now, he never wants to come off the field, whereas when he was young, he might have wanted to have a break or two,” Blackburn said. “Now, when it’s crunch time, he wants to be involved, and he’s always giving me ideas on how we can get him the ball. That’s the biggest thing, he’s gone from being a role player to wanting to be the guy.”
Without question, Berryhill has carried the heaviest load among running backs around the valley this season, carrying the ball 264 times – nearly 100 more than any other back – at 22 per game, slightly more than his 20 carries per game a year ago. With this workload, he’s been more efficient, gaining nearly a half-yard more per carry than a year ago, while amassing 1,684 yards and 16 touchdowns on the ground.
His 22 carries per game outpaces every NFL running back, whose games are 12 minutes longer.
He doesn’t boast the bruising blow of Trae Riek, the breakneck speed of Chris Toribio or the vision of Orlando Wallace, but Berryhill has transformed himself into someone that can do just a little bit of everything.
Berryhill fashions himself after the great Bo Jackson, which makes sense. They share the same name, they both played baseball and they’ve become known to do a little bit of everything on the field – exactly what the Aztecs need.
“He’s a workhorse. He surprises you sometimes with a breakaway run, but he’s not a guy that can take off and go to the house at any time, and that’s OK,” Blackburn said. “What’s really surprised me is that he’s not the biggest guy in the world (5-foot-10, 180 pounds), but he packs a punch.
“And when the other guys see him carrying two or three other guys with him before he comes down, I think that gives them energy on the sidelines. They rally around that stuff.”
Fellow three-year starter Will Emmett, who’s been blocking for Berryhill since the pair were sophomores, agrees.
“He works so hard for this team that you know you don’t want to disappoint him,” he said. “So we try to put in the same amount of effort he does all the time.”
More than most teams, the Aztecs have needed a workhorse to rally around this season. They’ve started three different quarterbacks – as many as any team in the valley. Jake Vincent, the season’s starter, saw his season end prematurely due to a nerve injury. Sophomore transfer Matthew Fitzgerald has filled in at times, but needs more time to mature. Senior Brian Devlin has officially taken over for the playoff push but doesn’t have the skills to transform the Aztecs into a potent passing threat.
But that’s not exactly Blackburn’s style, either.
“We want to establish a running game, and when we can pass the ball, it’s because our running game is such a threat,” Blackburn said. “He’s been able to give us that, and with the quarterbacks we’ve gone through, we’ve been able to ease them into the game and not ask too much of them.”
Both on and off the field, the senior running back doesn’t speak much. When asked how he’d assess his season as the top running back in the valley, he said, “I’m doing all right. I don’t want to sound cocky.”
According to Emmett, Berryhill lets his actions speak for themselves on the field, too.
“He’s quiet until he needs to speak, but when the time comes and his words need to get out there, he gets everyone going to do what they need to do,” Emmett said. “When Beau yells at you, you know it’s time to work.”
Even before the season started, Berryhill was dreaming of a championship ring, and to this point, he’s done everything possible to put his team in contention.
He rarely comes off the field at any point – yes, he’s also the team’s best tackler as a defensive back – and has played a huge part in not only putting points on the board but preventing them from piling up against the Aztecs also.
Going up against Serrano running back Sultaan Sullivan, who’s amassed 2,668 yards on the ground and 43 touchdowns this season, both will be pivotal to keep the Aztecs in an upset pursuit.
“We’ve got to stop them and score consistently, and if we don’t score, we have to use eight to 10 plays to burn time off the clock. If they’re going to score, we have to make them take 10-12 plays,” Blackburn said. “A high school team going 10 or 12 plays without a mistake is very rare, so you hope to make them take that long, and hopefully they’ll have an offsides, a fumble, something.”
Berryhill said he’s plenty confident the Aztecs will redeem themselves from a year ago and surprise the highest-seeded team left in the Eastern Division playoffs.
“I think they’re going to be pretty surprised to see what new team we have,” he said. “When we come and hit them, smack them a little bit, I think they’ll shut down a little bit or get a little nervous.”
So much of that will hinge on Berryhill, Emmett said, but after seeing what he’s been able to do in times of adversity this season, he’s confident Berryhill will come out playing on a different level, and the rest will fall in line.
“He never gives up. Even when the rest of the team has given up or the odds were against us, he’s kept our heads where they need to be,” Emmett said.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Palm Desert (8-4) at Serrano (10-2): The Aztecs didn’t have a chance a year ago in the first round against the Diamondbacks, losing 56-16 – a disappointing end to their disappointing season. A year later, though, Palm Desert is plenty energized and won’t be intimidated, even by Serrano’s running back, Sultaan Sullivan, who’s amassed 2,668 yards and 43 touchdowns on the ground. The Diamondbacks will only throw the ball when tested, so the Aztecs’ front seven will have to find a way to stop the run and force a mistake. If they can go mistake free themselves and not let the below-freezing temperature faze them, they’ve got a shot.