Not only did Salpointe Catholic trail for the first time this season, it looked, shall we say, scared, or any other S word you wish to summon. Skittish. Scattered.
The Lancers called a timeout and then, before they could run a play, another timeout.
When you’ve outscored your opponents 651-81, when you’ve won 13 consecutive games by at least four touchdowns, you don’t know what it’s like to feel a twinge of fear. But on Friday night at Arizona Stadium, trailing Scottsdale Chaparral 6-0, it surely entered the mind of every Lancers player and coach.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
“We were just all leaking a little bit of oil; it was uncharted territory for us,” said Salpointe coach Dennis Bene. “We just had to settle down; nobody panicked.”
To become state champions, the Lancers would have to stage an epic goal-line stand, smother a couple of punts, score on a fumble return and kickoff return, and play with such swiftness and purpose that it made you wonder if Tucson has ever had a team this good, now or for the last 100 years.
But there was no fear.
The Lancers won 46-20, spending the fourth quarter absorbing the moment — as good in the Biggest Game as they were in any of the 13 that led to it.
In the celebration, posing for photographs with the state championship trophy for the first time in the school’s 62-year football history, someone asked Salpointe quarterback Andrew Cota if he thought the game would be “that close.”
Cota turned his head and looked at the giant Arizona Stadium scoreboard.
“Close?” he said.
In Arizona high school football, beating Scottsdale Chaparral for a state championship is like beating the Yankees in the World Series. The Firebirds won six state titles between 1909-2011, winning ’em all, taking down some of the top teams in Tucson history, rubbing out Richard Sanchez’s 13-0 Sunnyside Blue Devils in 2000, and Nemer Hassey’s 13-0 Cienega Bobcats in 2011.
Chaparral had gone 14-2 against Tucson teams over the last 10 years, beating CDO in the 2008 state semifinals, and taking Bene’s best shot in 2011 and 2012, winning bitterly contested 22-21 and 27-20 games.
Perhaps that’s why, at game’s end Friday, the two coaching staffs got in one another’s face, threatening to rumble, Arizona’s two premier Division II teams unable to let it go.
This time, however, there was no doubt about the better team. Salpointe’s defense was too fast, too sure, limiting the Firebirds to 20 yards of total offense in the first half, when the game was decided.
It put the final stamp of excellence on Salpointe’s historic season.
“It has been historical in the sense that this was for everyone who has ever played and coached for Salpointe,” said Bene. “Now we can all call ourselves champions.”
Salpointe receiver Cameron Denson was so good on Friday that you could package his highlights into a video game. He caught a long touchdown pass with just one hand. He returned a kickoff for what seemed like 180 yards. His state title game was reminiscent of CDO’s Ka’Deem Carey in 2009, when Carey rushed for 267 yards and scored five touchdowns as the Dorados won the state title on the same field.
“That dude turned in some crazy plays,” said Cota, the quarterback.
But what really makes Salpointe tick, makes the Lancers dominant, is the depth chart. They’ve got so many good players that it enables Bene and his staff to keep his lineup fresh. It’s not just 11 on 11. It’s more like 22 on 11.
Defensive players Santiago Nieto, Jaylyn Juan, Kevin Hamlett, Jacob Ksiazek and Michael Vasquez came off the bench Friday and helped considerably, backing up regulars like Brandt Davidson, Jay Williams, Taylor Powell and Austin Weaver.
“It’s not just one guy,’’ said Denson, modestly. “We’ve got a lot of good guys.’’
Salpointe opened its doors in 1950 and fielded its first football team in 1952. In the years to follow, the Lancers would win more than 30 state championships in tennis, soccer, golf, swimming, volleyball, softball and track and field.
But it couldn’t break through in football. Former Arizona and ASU head coach Ed Doherty, who was Bene’s coach and mentor and died in 2000, went 28-6-1 in his last three seasons, reaching the 1981 state title game. Jerry Davitch, who would become the head coach at Idaho, went 28-12, but couldn’t get over the hump.
And Bene’s predecessor, Pat Welchert, won 89 games, reaching the 1991 state championship game, only to fall agonizingly close.
“For some people, this was a 20-year journey,” said Rocco Bene, Dennis’ brother, who is one of the club’s top assistant coaches. “We just stuck with it. That’s it. We just wouldn’t let up.”
After Friday’s ceremonial Gatorade bath, Dennis Bene hugged his father and kissed his wife. He waved to about 10,000 Salpointe fans who had witnessed the historic victory and then joined the party at the 50-yard line.
In his 13th season as the Lancers football coach, Bene has gone 126-29. On Friday, it all came to fruition, beating Chaparral for the first time, winning the state title at last.
“I hope the kids cherish this as I will,” Bene said. “It’s been such a long time coming.”