Last year Mountain Pointe entered the year as an unknown.
The Pride was coming off a 6-5 season that ended with some infighting that frayed the fabric of cohesiveness.
Everyone knew the talent was there. The question was could they be molded back into a typical Norris Vaughan team.
Physical. Disciplined. Feared.
A win over Hamilton to start the year answered it quickly on their way to the Pride’s first title game.
This season starts completely different as the expectations are heavier than ever before on Knox Road.
“The ultimate goal is 14 games and actually win it this time,” senior quarterback Antonio Hinojosa said.
Talent remains, along with some new faces that will be heavily counted on. The schedule has plenty of dangerous pot holes, but the regular season is not the real concern.
Not when they’ve had to sleep on the fact that they lost in the biggest game of their lives for nine months.
It’s the road back to the University of Phoenix Stadium that matters. The gold ball is the target.
And they won’t settle for anything less.
“That was the state championship game and it’s what we strive for every year,” senior running back/linebacker Wesley Payne said. “That’s hurt and we’ve been focused on getting back ever since.”
The combination of talent, the memory of falling short against Hamilton, and Vaughan’s history (40-11 at MP, 87-16 in Arizona with six semifinal appearances in eight seasons) puts the onus on the Pride to make it back to the championship game again.
The offensive line returns three starters — guard Natrell Curtis, center Collin Lambdin, and tackle Kyle Spight — along with one of the top groups of skilled players.
Wide receiver Jalen Brown is the reigning Gatorade Player of the Year, opposite of him is the 6-foot-3 Emmanuel Butler, while quarterback Antonio Hinojosa will get his second year in the offense, a first under Vaughan with the Pride.
The running back situation will flush itself out with four quality backs in Wesley Payne, Trey Lauer, Brandyn Leonard and Deontay Townsend.
With all things being equal Payne would be the No. 1 running back, getting 20 touches a game, but his duties as one of the state’s top linebackers will keep it closer to 10 to 12.
The defense, which allowed 7 points or fewer in seven games last season, brings back five starters and added two impactful transfers.
The front seven has some nastiness to it with Charlie Trevino, Mitchell Fraboni and, at times, Curtis up front. Payne and Lauer pace the linebacker crew.
Brown, who is one interception off the school record of 14 career picks, leads the defensive backfield at free safety with cornerback Dominique Fenstermacher (Marcos de Niza) and strong safety Markell Simmons (Tucson) give the Pride, along with Timmy Hernandez or Ernie de la Trinidad at cornerback, one of best units in the state.
What it all adds up to won’t be fully known for three and half months.
It is clear, however, that unless it ends with a trophy above someone’s head, Mountain Pointe, which is ranked No. 19 nationally by rivals.com, fell short of where they expect to be Thanksgiving weekend.
“They’re one of the most talented teams I’ve had, but talent doesn’t make a team,” Vaughan said. “We won’t know how good we can be until we are in the season, but there is no question this team can be one of the teams left at the end of the year.”
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