The season could have easily gone another way.
Desert Vista lost to its rival Mountain Pointe, the negativity that engulfed last season's squad was starting to swirl once again and the team had probably its worst week of practice.
For a team that has a group of seniors that hadn't experienced a whole lot of winning the next step could have been a free for all to dysfunction.
And that week's opponent?
Just two-time defending state champion Chandler Hamilton.
"That negativity from last year reared its ugly head a little but after we lost to Mountain Pointe," Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said. "It led to a terrible week of practice. It could have been a bad situation."
Instead, the Thunder has become one of the state's biggest surprises, winning eight straight games entering Friday's 7 p.m. kickoff against Mesa Desert Ridge in the Class 5A Division I state semifinals at Mesquite High in Gilbert.
"Mid-way through the Hamilton game when it was close (21-14 Hamilton in the third quarter) we realized we could hang with anyone," senior wide receiver/defensive back Mike Ingrassia said. "We were right there and that was with a bad week of preparation. From that point on we knew if we took care of things during the week we would be hard to beat."
The No. 3 Thunder (10-2) will put that to the test again versus the just-as-hot Jaguars (9-3). Desert Ridge's No. 10 seeding doesn't do the Jaguars justice as they have won seven straight and two of their defeats are by a single point.
"They are a lot like us," junior running back/linebacker Mike Arredondo said. "They are hard-nosed, have something to prove and probably don't get the respect they deserve. It should be a great game. Both teams have nothing to lose since no one expected us to be here."
That's especially true for the Thunder as much as they might say they believed. The team was 2-8 last year, the seniors had never had a winning season and they were counting on plenty of sophomore and juniors who had never seen the varsity field.
"We envisioned it but it was blurry and unclear," Hinds said with a smirk. "As a coaching staff we talked about going 7-3 or 8-2. We knew the talent was there, but we had to fight through some of the negativity and once we did the confidence just snowballed from there."
Early in the season when the team was still finding itself the young players had to do so without their emotional leaders.
Senior tight end/defensive end Sean Coffinger and Arredondo both missed time because of knee injuries. The Thunder hasn't lost a game with both of them in the lineup.
"We had to find a way without them," sophomore guard Zack Tamburo said. "They are clearly our leaders and when they weren't there we had to look elsewhere. It helped us grow up and figure some things out on our own."
One of those things - with or without Coffinger and Arredondo - the Thunder came to know is the fact that they could come back from just about any deficit.
It was a complete flip from last season when Desert Vista lost several games in the second half. Now it is like the Thunder don't find their groove until the second-half kickoff.
"We know someone is going to step up," said Ingrassia, who is usually the one on offense to do so. "When we were playing Salpointe and we started to come back you could hear them starting to turn on each other. We never do that. No matter the situation we stay in the fight together."
They should be in for a good fight against the Jaguars. The offense has changed due to an injury to quarterback Parker Rasmussen, who threw the ball 20 times a game, and should see some playing time for the first time since October.
With Jordan Becerra running the offense, the team runs the ball more out of the spread offense as running back Joey Counts averaged 154 yards rushing in the five games heading into the state quarterfinals and just 44.8 yards before that.
The Jaguars also rely heavily on two college prospects in 6-foot-4, 225-pound Sam Papa and 6-3, 205-pound Paris Clark on both sides of the ball when they are healthy enough to do so.
The Thunder counter with an offense that has scored at least 20 points in nine games behind the big plays of Ingrassia (1,856 total yards, 13 TDs) and a defense that forced 28 turnovers and registered 21 1/2 sacks.
"We know you have to play to win and not to lose," Ingrassia said. "So much of it is the chemistry and the stuff you can't coach. It is all of us guys together doing whatever it takes to win."
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