By Eric Newman, GSN Staff Writer
Three weeks into the season, the Mesquite High football team easily could have let go and filed away 2018 as a lost year.
The Class 4 Wildcats were 0-3, having lost back-to-back close games to 5A Gilbert High and Campo Verde, and falling just short at Mingus, despite having the ball late in each game.
On a long bus ride home from Cottonwood after a three-point loss to Mingus, in which the Wildcats suffered three costly turnovers, the group realized it was now or never.
“We weren’t worried, but we knew we had to basically win every game from then out. Nobody was really putting their heads down. We knew we still could do it, but we just had to make sure we won a lot in a row,” senior fullback-linebacker Holden Owen said.
A few Mesquite classmates began hurling insults that the team would lose to its own JV squad.
Enough was enough. The Wildcats delivered five straight wins and positioned themselves to earn a playoff berth going into their final two games. They went for six in a row Oct. 19 against Marcos de Niza (1-7).
“I definitely had faith. Looking at our schedule, we knew we could win the next six games, and hopefully we’ll compete with Saguaro after that,” Owen said. “But I think everybody kind of knew it was possible to make a run.”
Coach Chad DeGrenier said the atmosphere became playoff-like after three games. A single loss in the middle of the year could eliminate the Wildcats from playoff contention.
During the streak, the team learned to control of the ball with its offense, create more turnovers with its defense, and the Wildcats have not allowed more than 15 points. They won each of the five games by double-digit margins.
“Coach has set the goal at two turnovers a game as a defense or we have to run extra at practice, and we already don’t like to run,” Owen said. “So, we make sure we get all the turnovers we need, and that has been big for us.”
DeGrenier added, “Since those first three games, we’re definitely in the plus there. Our offense gets more possessions and they’ve been clicking much more than before so it has us in a pretty good spot.”
Sophomore quarterback Ty Thompson, who had several fumbles and interceptions in the early games, has bounced back. Through eight games, he had 18 touchdown passes to just five interceptions.
“Zero-and-three didn’t look right for us,” Thompson said. “We just had to take care of some mistakes and we knew we could win a bunch in a row.”
DeGrenier expected a lot early from Thompson, but he suffered through growing pains as a first-time starter against two teams a division higher.
Now with more practice reps and soaring confidence, Thompson has earned the trust of the coaching staff and teammates.
“He has definitely made a big difference for us. Even as just a sophomore he leads the offense, and he makes so many good throws. It helps everybody else make plays, too,” said senior linebacker Trevor Coates.
Mesquite still needs a win to guarantee a winning record. Going into the final two games, the Wildcats were No. 17 in the AIA Class 4 playoff rankings. The top 16 make it.
The regular-season-ending game is against Saguaro on Oct. 26. The Sabercats have not lost a section game since 2012 and have won five straight state championships.
However, close contests against Gilbert, boasting quarterback Will Plummer, who has received multiple college scholarship offers, and Campo Verde, where Matt Lazier is among the top 5A rushers, has Mesquite confident that it can compete with any team in the state.
“There might be guys on the other side that have all these college offers but everybody’s the same out on the field playing the game we love,” Coates said. “That gives us a lot of hope and I think we’ve got a shot.”