It comes down to this: Red Mountain goes back to where it all started so poorly.
The opponent is the same. The venue is not; neither are the teams are not. A second chance awaits.
Chandler is still the defending champ technically, at least until about 10 p.m. on Dec. 2. With that comes a confidence, an expectation and a burden.
The Wolves have handled it all well and it started on Aug. 18 with a 42-14 win over Red Mountain that included a 35-0 lead with just over three minutes left in the third quarter.
The Mountain Lions will have 48 minutes on Friday at Hamilton to redact that ugly statement from the record in the 6A Conference semifinals.
“That seems like it was a long time ago,” Red Mountain senior outside linebacker Joey Sanchez said. “But we haven’t forgotten how that felt. It was disappointing. We weren’t ready to play.”
The Wolves have watched the game film. They know they are facing a different team this time around. One that has gained confidence, swagger and a fearlessness that comes with a school-record 10-game win streak.
“I don’t think you can count us out of anything at this point,” senior quarterback Cannon Griner said. “You have respect a 10-game winning streak. They know we are better than the first week.”
The Wolves are largely considered the state’s top team now that they have returned to health. They know what it takes to win this type of game with a coach in Shaun Aguano who has changed the culture of the program after winning two state titles in three seasons.
It means Red Mountain is going to have to be at its best with more than a few big plays mixed in on both sides of the ball.
“We know how good they can be,” Red Mountain coach Mike Peterson said. “We’ve seen it first-hand. It doesn’t mean we are going to meet them by the 50-yard line and let them kiss us on the ear.”
The Red Mountain offense has grown now that Griner has 12 games of experience behind center, with dynamic athlete Lance Lawson healthy, along with wide receiver Gerald Wilbon finally finding out how good he can be, and a reshuffled offensive line controlling the line of scrimmage.
“Cannon is finding the open guy and we’re all making plays,” Wilbon said. “We’re playing at a different level now.”
The defense, and maybe the special teams as well, needs to make game-changing plays, and force as many three-and-outs as possible. The unit has been doing just that for months – 37 sacks, 18 interceptions including five pick 6s on the season – while shutting down the opposition.
“I am mostly an offensive player, but our defense carries our team to be honest,” Lawson added. “It starts with our defensive line and then our linebackers and secondary piggy-back off that. Our defensive scheme is perfect.”
Perfect is a strong word, but the defense has been a big reason why the Mountain Lions are perfect over the last 10 games.
Alexander Randle makes plays behind the line of scrimmage, Sanchez has taken over as the top linebacker, Shaq Daniels and Wilbon make for one of the best set of cornerbacks in the state while freshman safety George Ramirez has averaged 6.5 tackles a game since being inserted in the lineup in Week 10.
“It was a slow start against Chandler and Hamilton, but we’ve gotten better every week,” Daniels said. “The first time we played them we weren’t ready. That won’t be the case this time.”
So, it comes down to this.
Two halves. One game. Two teams. One winner.
“We have come a long way since the last time,” Peterson said. “We learned how to win and we know that we can win. That’s the biggest thing.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a senior writer for MyNewsMesa.com. Send Mesa-based story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.