The task at hand was a large one.
Season opener on the road. Against a nationally-ranked Chandler squad. A program that has won two of the last three big-school state titles in Arizona.
Without your player of the year candidate.
Red Mountain knew it had to be at its best to hang with the Wolves, and the Mountain Lions didn’t exactly play clean, championship football to match Chandler’s level.
The Wolves won 42-14 in the season opener for two 6A Conference contenders.
Red Mountain quarterback Cannon Griner was stripped sacked by Zach Bowers and the Wolves’ first possession started on the Mountain Lion 1-yard line.
It was inauspicious start, and only got worse, before the Mountain Lions, who played without running back/wide receiver Lance Lawson, acclimated themselves.
It came mostly against the Wolves’ second team after Chandler built a 35-0 with just over 3 minutes left in the second quarter as Carter Wheat caught a touchdown and Justin Coleman scored on a 23-yard run.
It came much too late, but it was better than showing no signs of success.
“It’s my fault. I should have prepared them well enough,” first-year coach Mike Peterson said. “This is a good team. They are young kids; they don’t know any better. I do. I should have prepared them better. That’s what I was hired to do, and that’s what I need to do.
“It was all a problem. Blocking, tackling, holding on to the football, fundamentals, how we speak to our coaches, how we ride the bus. We’re learning. There is a culture that needs to be different.”
The defense gave up big plays, especially to the Chandler dynamic duo of junior quarterback Jacob Conover (14 of 17 for 380 yards, two TDs, INT) and senior wide receiver Gunner Romney (four for 174, two TDs), and the special teams set up another when a bad snap led to a scoop and score.
All that could go wrong essentially did.
Whether it was a big gain followed up by a personal foul or three defenders covering Romney when he caught his first of two touchdowns on a fourth and 24 play from the Red Mountain 27, Red Mountain never looked the part of a top five team.
“They got the momentum early, and we never got it back,” said junior linebacker Anthony Giraldi, who injured his leg on a interception inside the Red Mountain 20. “Nothing went right.”
The positive was the fact the Mountain Lions never gave in to the disappointment or the margin of defeat.
That was evident on the first drive of the second half when Chandler wide receiver Jarick Caldwell broke a tackle on a sideline pass and ran nearly 90 yards before fumbling after being tackled from behind as Red Mountain recovered inside its own 5.
If that level of pursuit and heart is an indication of how the Mountain Lions are going to compete the rest of the year, then Red Mountain will be fine as the season progresses.
“There were some signs there,” Peterson said. “They are good kids and we are going to do great things. They just have to get better, and that’s my job.”
Chandler coach Shaun Aquano, who was an assistant when Peterson was also on the Wolves’ coaching staff in the early 2000s, fully expects the Mountain Lions will play for their new coach.
“I hugged him and told him I loved him,” Aguano said. “They made some mistakes, we forced some of them, but they made them too, so we got up early. I knew they were going to play hard for him, and that’s exactly what they did. They kept coming after us, but we had too many things go our way.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to email@example.com.