Mountain Pointe began the year with high turnover and expectations, but the Pride managed to hold tight through injuries, selfishness to get to second straight state semifinals. Izzy Marshall (8), Chris Carl (77), JR Plote (82) and Raymus Bryant (6) are seen here heading out for the coin toss in the first game of the season. Darryl Webb

The physical education lecture hall at Mountain Pointe was transformed into an open forum.

Leaders stood. Words were spoken. Air was cleared.

A season was changed.

The Pride let a close, winnable game become a 44-22 blowout at the hands of Mesa Desert Ridge. It didn't sit well with anyone within the program. The coaches had their say and left the room. Some of the parents waiting outside went home without their sons.

The players had plenty to say and even more to work out.

"After the Desert Ridge game we talked for awhile," senior linebacker Izzy Marshall said. "That's when people realized that it is like a business and if we didn't start getting it done we were going to go bankrupt."

Since then their business has been about winning games, and business has been good.

Mountain Pointe has won five straight to position itself one win away from the first state championship game in school history.

The fifth-seeded Pride (10-2) plays No. 1 Chandler Hamilton (13-0) at Chandler High tonight with a 7 p.m. kickoff.

The second straight semifinal appearance comes with plenty of new faces. The offense returned only one starter. The defense had five new starters. The kicking game was new.

While coach Norris Vaughan's reclamation project of the program came quickly - the Pride went from 2-8 to 12-1 in his first year - there was no guarantee it was going to continue with such a high level of success.

That didn't mean he didn't demand it, but there were many new faces and a new identity to flush out.

"I'll be honest, we had high expectations, but as many changes as we had it wasn't a certainty," Vaughan said. "I felt like early in the year when we had everyone going, we were OK, but I felt like we were playing selfish for whatever reason. We had to sit down some people who were starters. People began to realize this is a team game and we grew from there.

"We've played as a unit and to win since then."

The new approach was derived from the team meeting after the loss to Desert Ridge.

"We talked about our focus and the bigger picture of things and what we wanted to be as a team," said senior defensive end JR Plote, who leads the team in sacks with five. "It wasn't going to be one player or coach that got it done. It had to be all us. Everyone had to sacrifice and give up everything for the good of the team."

It led to an 18-7 win over Mesa Westwood and then two impressive wins over Gilbert Perry (35-21) and Tempe Marcos de Niza (27-7) to tie the Jaguars for the East Valley Region title.

In the postseason, the wins have been a little more difficult in getting past Mesa Red Mountain and Phoenix Brophy by a total of five points.

That leaves nationally-ranked Hamilton.

The Huskies have won 38 straight games, have enough talent that their second unit would make the postseason and are mostly hated by everyone outside the program because of their success, which is usually the case with any dominant program.

"They have tremendous talent, really don't have a weakness and they are well coached," Vaughan said. "They are far and above everyone else. There is no way they should be beat. They are far too talented, but you go out there and do the best you can.

"We feel like you always have a chance. You have to play well in all three areas of the game and we need a little help from them, but they really haven't shown the propensity to do that. Anything can happen in a game and, in all honesty, we need it to."

Mountain Pointe's front seven is the team's strong point. The defense gives up only 98.4 yards rushing per game. The pass defense has given up big plays as the unit has had to mature with some young players in the defensive backfield.

Hamilton counters with a huge offensive line, including Ahwatukee Foothills resident Christian Westerman, which has three players receiving college scholarship offers.

The Huskies have a dual-threat quarterback in Kyren Poe, who has 2,435 total yards and 25 touchdowns. Tanner Clay (50 catches, 9 TD), Kendyl Taylor (43 catches, 5 TD) and Jai Johnson (737 rushing yards, 10 TDs) also pose matchup problems.

Defensively, the Huskies allow 12.5 points, sacked the quarterback 49 times and forced 31 turnovers.

The Pride come in as overwhelming underdogs. A win here and they will be authors of one of the biggest upsets in state history.

"(Defensive coordinator Jeff) Decker told us you never know when it is going to be your last chance to make it to the state championship," Marshall said. "We realize if we don't put all of our heart into it we're going to go home early.

"And we sure ain't trying to go home."



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