MESA - Just when the predictability of high school super teams lifting trophies and off-the-field news combine to make fans more cynical, along comes a team like Mountain Ridge flag football.
The Mountain Lions aren't proof that any team that suits up can get to the title game - these girls can play. But this team does remind us that a squad can grow into a contender through the course of the season, learning how to play smarter, trust each other more and process the game plans of top notch coaches better.
That is how #11 seed Mountain Ridge (11-5) won its third straight road game Thursday night at #2 Mesa Red Mountain (14-1) by a 7-0 score. And that is how a team in its first year of flag football play, full of girls with virtually zero football experience before August, finds itself in the 6A state title game Saturday.
"I have full confidence in this team," senior quarterback/cornerback Madison Green said. "We see ourselves as the underdog but we work so hard to get it.'
In an unintended quirk, the Mountain Lions will face the other road warriors in the field - but on their home field. #9 Mesa Mountain View (12-3) won at Phoenix Desert Vista, Gilbert Highland and Chandler Hamilton to get to a game scheduled months ago on the Toros' turf.
At this point, all the Mountain Lions can say is "bring it on."
"It doesn't matter who it is now," coach Whitney Warmus said.
The first half of Mountain Ridge's first season can officially be thrown out. Red Mountain traveled to Glendale and beat Mountain Ridge 17-7 Sept. 18 to send the Mountain Lions to 2-5.
But players and coaches knew something special was brewing.
"I was going back to texts with another captain, from the start of the season. I remember texting, 'who is this soccer player? She's so good," Green said. "I knew none of these girls before August."
Warmus' team has not lost since. The final six regular season wins and playoff berth were somewhat expected by everyone involved.
Only after a 20-18 win at #6 Chandler in the first round Oct. 24 did this team realize what it was capable of.
"I truly believed we could surpass this when we won our first playoff game. That was our first true challenge after we got our win streak. Once we executed at Chandler, it kind of opened everyone's eyes,. They could see the field and understood the game," Warmus said.
Two nights later, the Mountain Lions knocked off #3 Marana (12-1) 21-20 in Southern Arizona. That was a prelude to another upset of an undefeated foe.
From the opening minutes Wednesday night, the dominance of both defenses was clear.
Mountain Ridge did not cross midfield until the final minute of the first half. Red Mountain had the field position advantage through halftime, but never got closer than the Ridge 24.
"All of our coaches were mentally preparing them for the game plan. The girls mentally prepare themselves and watch game film," Warmus said. "Our defense is fast. They're track athletes, and athletes in general. They just put their skills to it."
The visitors started to find something just before half after almost completely relying on Green's ability to scramble early. Green hit freshman Allie Jensen for five yards, then Emma Johnson for nine more.
The clock ran out before Green could run out of bounds.
So she made the game-changing play in the third quarter - as a safety. With Red Mountain driving, Green picked off sophomore quarterback Korey Roberts and returned it more than 35 yards to the Red Mountain 30.
Warmus credited the pass rush generated by senior Ellie Cardiff and sophomore Tanvi Kolaokar.
"The defensive mentality is, 'Oh hey, we're going to set up the offense really good,'" Green said. "It stemmed from that rush. Ellie Cardiff and Tanvi do a great job rushing. Our corners protected so she couldn't throw corner. Our middle linebacker Emma Johnson was beautiful on that. So she had to throw deep. Once I grabbed it I kind of knew we won."
An unitentional, but strong tackle by Red Mountain tacked on 15 yards and gave Mountain Ridge the chance it had been looking for - first and goal at the 15.
An eight-yard run on a Statue of Liberty play by sophomore Cameron Mallioux put the underdogs in position. On third down Green saw a slight opening for Jensen and the freshman made the five-yard touchdown catch in traffic - in her first game back from an injury.
"It was amazing. They called a time out and brought on a different player so we knew we had a weak spot there so we went for it,"Jensen said.
Mountain Ridge drove within the red zone early in the fourth before a hold and false start pushed them back. Red Mountain sophomore Cadence McCanless picked off Green at her own 15.
Three plays later, Green picked off Roberts again on a deep shot - at the Mountain Ridge 47.
Red Mountain preserved the one-score game by blocking a 39-yard field goal attempt with 3:05 left in the game.
A hold wiped out a long pass by Roberts on the subsequent drive. Mountain Ridge got a fourth down stop at its own 48 with 1:40 remaining.
Red Mountain got it back on its 22 with 25.5 seconds left. Mallioux finished the game with an interception a couple plays later.
That, in an of itself, is not what makes this first season or this group of girls special..
"Reaching the state championship is a huge accomplishment, developing this program in general is a success. But the great people we have on this team is what makes it special," Warmus said.