When Tim Thies reflects back to the 2009 season an undeniable smirk comes across his face as if he is a proud father of five.

And in a way, he is, as coaches get attached to most of their players over the course of four years, but lucky for him it doesn’t require financial assistance.

Otherwise, Thies would be hurting considering he’d have both fed and clothed the Thunder’s offensive line.

It might have been worth it considering the development the Thunder’s starting five has seen since they all come together as freshmen, albeit at different positions.

“They are the neatest group of the guys,” Thies said. “It is going to be tough for me when they play their last game together. You rarely come across a group like this, one that essentially grows up together, and not to take away from the younger guys, but we may not truly understand how good they are until they are gone.”

The unit hasn’t been in its entirety very much this season as guard Mitch Wehrli has missed three games, while tackle Zack Tamburo will miss his second consecutive game this week against Dobson with an Achilles’ heel injury after coming out in the first quarter against Hamilton on Oct. 5.

That’s why there is so much optimism heading into the final weeks of the regular season and beyond.

The team’s known strength hasn’t been at its best other than maybe the Saguaro game when Desert Vista ran for 365 yards, including a near record by Jarek Hilgers as the senior running back went for 269 yards.

On that day, Tamburo, Wehrli, center Cole Preston, guard Dylan Fischer, and tackle Sam Hartman put it together and believe it is a sign of things to come as the season enters the postseason.

“It’s been a little bit frustrating, but the other guys have filled in well,” Hartman said. “We haven’t had a letdown, but to get this team to where it wants to go we all need to be out there.”

The group, which usually spends Saturdays together watching college football after their own film session, has come a long way even though they showed that potential as a young group. Preston never played football until that freshmen season, Hartman has always been undersized and Fischer wasn’t a true starter on offense for the varsity until this year.

While they have all matured and developed at different rates, what they share is a similar trait that was ingrained long before they snapped on that chinstrap for the first time.

“My dad was the line coach on that freshmen team and he told me you will never have a group like this again,” Thies said. “Everyone can see their size and speed, but what makes them special is their intangibles.

“I don’t think you have a GPA under 3.7, they are as competitive as they can be and they play through pain. They don’t want to let down those around them and that starts at home with the parents. These guys have a respect for the game and a work ethic that started long before we got a hold of them.”

The unit can be identified by the numbers on their jersey, but with the help of Thies they can also be singled out by a few words.

The overachiever — “Sam is the smallest and least talked about, but when we hit that big one to start the state title game he was firing off against (Hamilton’s Jaxon) Hood.”

The surly one — “Zack is as ornery as they come. He is the proverbial pit bull.”

The professor — “Cole is probably the most serious and is a quick study.”

The (pain) threshold — “Mitch has had some bad luck. The day before he is coming back (from meniscus surgery) against Mountain Pointe, someone drop a 25-pound weight on his toe. He played with 10 stitches and stuck it out despite all the pain he was in.”

The developer — “Dylan is probably the most improved since their freshmen year. We’ve moved him all around and he has just kept getting better.”

Before continuing on with the praise of the linemen, they know they wouldn’t be at this collective level without Thies.

“We have a few special names for him too, but we will keep that to ourselves,” Thunder coach Dan Hinds said with a laugh. “That’s a special group and he is a big part of it. They have a special way of communicating because all of them are so smart. They’ll talk about something and I’ll just let them do their thing because they know each other so well. It is like I am out of the loop because they are talking a different language.”

In the back of their minds, they know their time together on the field only has a handful more games left even if they duplicate last year’s state title run.

They are preparing for their last game together and the fact that they will go their separate ways next fall.

Until then they will leave the huddle, walk to the line of scrimmage, and wait for Preston to make his line calls before they will work in unison for as long as they can because it is all they’ve really known for the last four seasons.

“If you see all of our freshmen pictures, we kind of look like we do now only younger,” said Tamburo, who was the first to get called up to varsity as a sophomore. “And uglier because we all had some kind of acne or something. It’s kind of scary, but it’s been a long time.

“(The last snap) is going to be weird. Hopefully, it ends happy.”


• Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or jskoda@ahwatukee.com. Follow him on Twitter @JSkodaAFN.

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