Once Again A Plucky Amphi Football Team Is Crushed By The Overwhelming Forces Of The North.
By Tom Danehy
THE BANNER HANGING in the Amphi High School gym last Friday told a sweetly sad tale. It read: "Tonight We're Gonna Party Like It's 1979." Amazingly, it's been that long since a Tucson team brought home a big-school state football championship, a fact lamented in these parts, and used as a club by the dullards in Phoenix to simultaneously puff up their own self-image while looking down their noses (and the interstate) at the weaklings in Tucson.
It really doesn't matter that the deck has long been stacked in favor of the mega-schools in the East Valley with their enrollments twice that of the average Tucson school. (This year, political maneuvering led to Amphi being the only Tucson-area team in the state playoffs.) All that matters is who wins, and a Tucson school hasn't done it since Amphi turned the trick about a month after Iran took those hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
Well, Amphi didn't party like it was 1979. Instead, they shrugged and dreamed of what might have been, like they had done in '91, '93 and '96 when they lost in the semis, and 1990 when they lost to Mesa in the state title game.
Defending state champion Mesa Mountain View scored two touchdowns late in the game to overcome a 24-14 Amphi lead and win, 28-24. It was a gut-wrenching loss for the Panther players, but one which they should be able to cling to and appreciate as the distance of time allows them to bask in the warm glow of accomplishment which marked their collective trek to excellence.
Amphi shouldn't have been there in the finals. Ask anybody outside of the Amphi community. They'll tell you the school's too small, the players are too small. Amphi has defensive backs playing linebacker and linebackers playing nose guard. They've got a quarterback who should be out skateboarding and a basketball player going both ways at tight end and linebacker.
Amphi started the season with 39 players and then lost a few kids to injury. Coach Vern Friedli's not the type to bring kids up from the junior varsity just so his sideline won't be lonely, so they went into their championship match with only about half as many players as their opponents. But twice as much heart, so it all evened out.
THE MESA SCHOOLS came to dominate Arizona sports almost by accident. First, somebody invented air conditioning, thereby allowing the Valley of the Sun to attract people to its God-forsaken smog pit. Then, the Mormons, thinking that the Great Salt Lake wasn't desolate enough, decided to open a branch office in the armpit of the universe, thus the Mesa Temple.
Now, before you Mormons get out the quills (no wait, those are Amish), relax. This is just historical shorthand. Although I do love a good Mormon hate letter--they're so neatly typed and polite--but I have absolutely no beef here. I love Mormons.
Anyway, during the boom period of 1965-'85, they couldn't build schools fast enough to keep up with the explosive population growth in the East Valley. Then they discovered a not altogether unpleasant side-effect of crowded schools: Their sports teams kicked butt. Mostly through hard work, but the fact that they had a student pool twice the size of everybody else's from which to choose their athletes didn't hurt. Since then, the Mesa schools have stayed large by choice.
Thankfully, there are no bookies' odds on high-school football games in Arizona. (If there were, two ASU students would probably try to figure a way to shave points.) A conservative estimate of a possible line for last Friday's game would have had Mountain View favored by 21 points or more. The Toros, winners of 27 straight, were all a head taller and 35 pounds heavier, man-for-man, than their Amphi counterparts. It should have been no contest.
And when Mountain View took an early 6-0 lead, it looked like they would cruise. But then Amphi came back with one long, time-consuming, yardage-eating drive after another. The Panthers led 10-6 at the half and 24-14 early in the fourth quarter.
After the Toros charged back to make it 24-21 with about seven minutes left, Amphi embarked on a drive which would determine their season. On a fourth-down-and-one at their own 39, Friedli decided to eschew the conventional wisdom which called for a punt and instead go for the first down. It was a brilliant call, gutsy and confident. Try to win, don't try not to lose.
It didn't work. Mountain View took over on downs and marched in for a TD.
Even then Amphi didn't quit. A nail-biting final drive got the ball into Toro territory, and the season came down to a fourth-and-five with less than a minute to play. The Panthers lined up Antrel Bates as a wide receiver split left and sent him on a fly pattern. All eyes were on Bates until the Panther QB threw the pass to the other side of the field, toward Brian Frison who was behind his defender and heading for the winning TD. But the ball didn't get there. It was slightly underthrown and intercepted.
The tears began flowing immediately thereafter.
I SAW FRIEDLI after the game and told him, "You know the best thing about being a football coach down on the field? You don't have to listen to the (idiots) up in the stands as they second-guess the coach down on the field."
He just smiled and shrugged. His Panthers finished the season 13-1 and second in the big schools in Arizona. A brilliant job, a bitter disappointment.
AFTER THE AMPHI game, I thought back to the end of the movie, The Commitments. After the fledgling soul band had come to the brink of stardom only to see their dreams dashed, veteran trumpeter Joey "The Lips" Fagan tells a disconsolate manager Jimmy Rabbit, "If we had (achieved success), it would have been so predictable. This way it's poetry."
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