The “next man up” mantra has become a calling card for successful teams.
It creates a confidence within the program that no matter who steps on the field the level of play will remain high.
Red Mountain is no different. And the Mountain Lions have tested it a lot. It has not only created confidence, but depth as well.
“You know at some point you are going to count on players outside of the starting 22,” Red Mountain coach Mike Peterson. “I’ve been really proud of how some of these players have stepped in and performed when we’ve needed them to.”
It goes all the way back to spring ball when it became clear that the expected starting quarterback – Austin Duffy – decided to focus on baseball his senior year.
The job fell to either junior Garret Strehl and senior Cannon Griner, who played safety, linebacker, wide receiver and running back the year before.
Griner was named the starter and developed into a quality quarterback.
He might not run through all of his progressions like a more seasoned quarterback, but Griner has been making plays all year whether he is throwing it, racking up yards on called running plays, scrambling when pressured or throwing blocks when Lance Lawson takes over at quarterback.
“When we break the huddle it is almost calming when I come to the line now,” Griner said. “I am a lot more confident than when I first took over, but I knew I’d be ready by the time the season started.”
There have been similar stories throughout the year for the seventh-seeded Mountain Lions (10-2) and partially explains how they are on their way to the 6A Conference semifinals where they will face No. 3 Chandler (10-2) on Friday at Hamilton.
Early in the year sophomore offensive tackle Ben Bray missed a handful of games so senior AJ Mageo stepped in at right tackle and sophomore Jacob Griffin took over at left tackle.
One of the most important fill-ins has been junior linebacker Anthony Giraldi, who had the difficult job of replacing inside linebacker Delton Jackson, who tore up his knee with a non-contact injury at the end of practice before the Mesa game.
There was no replacing Jackson the leader, but Giraldi has averaged 6.3 tackles a game since taking over for Jackson, who started for four years and averaged 9.9 tackles a game this season.
“When (Jackson) went down at the very end of practice it was hard to watch,” senior outside linebacker Joey Sanchez said. “We had no time to mess around. It was next man up. Giraldi has been doing an amazing job. We all had to step up and make plays.”
In the ninth game, senior safety Justin Coleman was injured after getting his hand smashed by his teammate’s helmet when they converged on a tackle against Skyline.
Junior Issac Thompson took over for Coleman and has played all over the field this year as he has also seen time at the Sam linebacker and both safety positions.
“He has a very high football IQ, which makes him have the ability to learn multiple positions,” Red Mountain defensive coordinator Kyle Enders said.
Another example came from sophomore running back Ty McElroy, who was thrust into a prominent role early in the season when Lawson started the year less than 100 percent and then senior running back Alejando Lujan was suspended a short time for breaking team rules.
McElroy had three 100-plus yard games in a four-game stretch, but has taken a lesser role in recent weeks with Lawson back to his elusive self and Lujan running hard between the tackles.
The biggest example, however, probably came in Week 10.
About 25 players were either out because of injury, suspended after getting ejected the week before, or had already met their 10-game limit because some of the younger players played in the junior varsity game during the bye week.
The game was close in the fourth quarter – Red Mountain trailed 16-14 – before Lujan finished off a 206-yard, three-touchdown game, Jesus Vasquez had a pick 6 and Strehl threw a touchdown pass.
“It has been that way all year,” Sanchez said. “We’ve all stepped up in some way at some point. If we didn’t we probably wouldn’t be here.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.