Cat Fight

The Sabino Sabercats defeated the Amphi Panthers in the biggest football match-up of the year.

SOMETIMES GOLIATH WINS. It's less interesting, perhaps, when that happens, but it is the hard, dry fact of life to which variety adds spice. That reality, balanced against the glimmer of surprise, had to be considered foremost when Amphi and Sabino High Schools squared off on the football field in what was one of the most eagerly anticipated high-school sporting events in years.

It was longtime 5A power Amphi vs. newly arrived Sabino. The traditional over-achiever vs. the traditional overwhelmer. This year's Game of the Decade.

Ancient History

FOR NEARLY 40 years, Iowa and Iowa State universities, the only two Division 1-A colleges in the entire Hawkeye State, didn't play each other in football. It took an official act on the part of the Iowa Legislature (and the threat of funding reductions) to get the teams to meet on the gridiron. Now they play each other every year. That's one of the better examples of the positive use of the legislative process.

In Southern Arizona high-school football during the 1990s, it has been all Amphi and Sabino. And yet it had been years since they played each other. In the 5A-South, Amphi has won seven of nine conference titles thus far, including the last five. Meanwhile, Sabino has dominated the 4A, winning eight straight conference titles and three state championships.

But while Sabino had won more titles, Amphi was clearly the People's Choice. The Panthers were a blue-collar team, too small in size and too few in number, yet always willing to take on schools with twice their enrollment. Sabino was standoffish, a tad arrogant. And always there was the talk of the money.

Sabino is high up on the hill, about a block and a half from Xanadu. Just across the fence from their softball field is a golf course that charges more for one round of golf than most people spend on a monthly car payment. It's mostly white, mostly affluent, mostly academic oriented. And just last week, one of the school's better athletes got caught smoking dope on the way back from a sporting event at Sierra Vista Buena.

Amphi is a couple miles north of downtown in a neighborhood that has seen better days. You've got your trailer-park kids mixed in with the apartment kids, as well as a fair number who live in nicer subdivisions along the outer edge of the school's boundary. It's ethnically mixed, middle-class, and features an Honors Academy that rivals the work done at TUSD's prestigious University High. The captain of last year's basketball team at Yale University was an Amphi grad.

Sportswriters being what they are -- creatures of habit, to put it nicely -- will always look for The Angle, a structure around which to build a story. Money may be such a cliché, but it works so well with Amphi-Sabino. Amphi coach Vern Friedli probably put it best when he said, "Their kids' parents are probably our kids' parents' bosses." If you'll pardon the apostrophes.

The teams used to play each other in non-conference games, but Sabino ended the series after Amphi had won seven straight. Non-conference match-ups are decided at a meeting of athletic directors. On a blackboard, each school writes a wish list of the schools it would like to play. For years Amphi AD John Ryan would write in Sabino, but Sabino always begged off.

One time, the then-Sabino AD got up during the meeting to go to the bathroom. When he came back, someone had erased what he had written and had replaced it with "Amphi." Poor guy 'bout got the vapors rushing up to erase it before it became a done deal.

Recent History

TWENTY-TWO MONTHS ago, on a surprisingly cold December night in Tempe, both Sabino and Amphi walked off the Sun Devil Stadium field as losers. In the Class 4A state championship game, heavily favored Sabino had been upset by Cottonwood Mingus, a school from up near Sedona. In the 5A nightcap, 30-point underdog Amphi had led defending 5A champion Mesa Mt. View for much of the game before losing, 28-24.

Then, in last year's playoffs, Amphi suffered a narrow first-round loss to Brophy Prep, which went on to the 5A state finals, while Sabino won the 4A state crown which had eluded the Sabercats the year before.

In 1999 it was gonna suck to be one of the other teams in the new 5A-South.

One Year Ago

WHILE EVERY FUNCTIONING organization needs a governing body, having the Arizona Interscholastic Association in charge of high-school sports is like having the asylum run by plumbers. There is no evil intent, but then again, quite often neither is there any rhyme nor reason to their modus operandi.

The AIA's gaffes are legendary. Perhaps best known for sucking all of the spontaneity and fun out of the state basketball playoffs by forcing everyone to adhere to a rigid schedule only Mussolini could appreciate, the AIA's miscues could fill a sweeps-month, hour-long special on the Fox Network.

(My personal favorite was the time an AIA official came out of the stands late in a state championship baseball game to overrule on-the-field umpires, changing a game-winning home run into a harmless double in a losing cause. To hear that guy tell it, all that matters was that the right call -- right according to him, anyway -- was made. Which is to say that the people are still running around all crazy, but the pipes work fine.)

One of the AIA's functions is to separate the state's schools into classifications in order to facilitate reasonably fair competition. Arizona has five classes, from 1A, consisting of schools with enrollments of 175 or less, up to 5A, with schools of 1,851 or more. While schools are allowed to petition to "play up" at a higher level (as many of the state's Catholic schools do, and Amphi has done in the past), a school cannot "play down."

Schools report their enrollments on the honor system. Over the years, there have been persistent rumors that a few schools do so the Harry Connick Jr. way -- with a wink and a smile. One local Class 1A prep school enjoyed a white-flight-type boom in its numbers in the late '80s/early '90s, and yet its official enrollment remained a steady 173. When the school's headmaster was asked why he didn't once put down 174, he replied, "That would be arrogant."

Fingers were often pointed at Sabino, which, along with fellow eastside school Sahuaro, always managed to come in just under the wire. In addition, Sabino benefitted from Emily Gray Jr. High in the nearby Tanque Verde District. Emily Gray is a 7-8-9 junior high in a district with no high school. So almost all of the ninth-grade athletes at Gray play freshman (or higher level) sports for Sabino without being counted on the school's enrollment.

With the huge growth on the northeast side and in neighboring Vail (which also doesn't have a high school yet), an upward bump in classification was inevitable for Sabino. When the biannual realignment was announced in the fall of 1998, it was official. Sabino, Flowing Wells and Rincon were moving up to the 5A class.

The talk of the Amphi-Sabino football game pretty much began that day.

Seven Months Ago

SABINO COACH JEFF Scurran called a press conference to announce that he was going to continue doing that which he had already been doing for the past several years.

That the media-savvy Scurran would call such a conference was not all that remarkable. What was remarkable was that all three local TV stations showed up to cover it. And then, beyond remarkably, despite the ho-hum, status-quo nature of the announcement, all three stations ran the story.

Scurran's decision surprised no one. For years he had openly lusted after a job in one of those shiny new football factories in the Phoenix area. The Valley of the Sun is on the leading edge of a national trend wherein affluent suburbs reverse a 20-year pattern of mean-spirited cheapness by building state-of-the-art schools, complete with eye-popping shrines to sports. It's no secret that Scurran would love to coach in a place where the money flows like water and the water flows as though the people don't realize they live in the desert.

While waiting for that particular phone call to come, Scurran realized he had a unique opportunity. Sabino would have 16 starters back from a state championship team, while Amphi had only four returning starters from a team which had lost in the first round. Furthermore, the newly drawn schedule had Amphi playing at Sabino on the last Friday of the 1999 regular season.

(The schedule had to be jiggled and the Big Game became the conference opener for both teams after Amphi AD Ryan insisted that the Panthers close the season with their traditional rival, Canyon Del Oro.)

All of the important factors were in Sabino's favor. The Sabercats could perform a surgical strike on a relatively weak Amphi team and enter the ranks of Class 5A with a big splash. Even the schedule switch played into Sabino's hands, as the experienced Sabercats had a chance to catch the young Panthers relatively early in the season.

Of course, the situations would be reversed the following year, in 2000. Sabino would be decimated by graduation, Amphi would be the more experienced team, and the game would be played on the field which will someday be named for Vern Friedli.

At his press conference, Scurran announced that he would be returning for "one more year."

Four Months Ago

FOR A WHILE LAST summer, it appeared as though the Big Game would be diminished in intensity by the loss of some key players. A series in the local afternoon paper unraveled an academic scandal at Sabino involving a counselor who was giving away "A" grades to kids who never even showed up for class. Not that there was much of a class, anyway. He wanted kids to read the newspapers and then try real hard to do something. Anything.

The story was huge for a few days, as one revelation spilled out after another. Document falsification, kids graduating who weren't supposed to, football players taking the phantom classes. There was all kinds of talk about administrators getting fired, whistle-blowers being intimidated and demoted for the actions, and even of felony charges being filed by the state.

But then -- just like that! -- like a summer monsoon that fails to coalesce, it went away. From what I've heard over the years, money can't buy happiness, but it apparently can buy a big-ass rug under which a lot of stuff can be swept.

Three Months Ago

SCURRAN SPENDS MUCH of his summer on tour, jetting around the country giving inspirational speeches for four- or five-figure fees. I saw him at the airport last summer, returning from a trip, and was amazed at how he gets his hair to have that wind-blown look even indoors. His walk is almost imperious. It reminded me of the 1960s deejay in L.A. who dubbed himself "Emperor Hudson" and claimed to own all of Southern California. At the end of his show each day, a booming voice would come on and say, "Get off the freeway, peasants! His Highness is coming!"

Vern Friedli spends his summers running around the track at Amphi in the noonday sun. He's one of the most ridiculously fit sexagenarians you'll ever see. For a vacation, he may drive up to Vegas with his wife Sharon to catch a show.

Both men are smaller than you might think. Scurran has a tanned face and a prominent nose. Friedli is also tanned and his face is lined. He looks like he earned every one of those lines, mostly through smiling at the foibles of life.

Scurran speaks smoothly and carefully, projecting a certain sense of authority. Friedli is the voice of exasperation and wonder. He keeps things simple and is constantly amazed at how the concept of simple can turn out to be too difficult for some.

Scurran looks like somebody you'd sit next to at a Republican fund-raiser. Friedli looks like the guy who's ahead of you in line at the all-you-can-eat place. (Although, disgustingly, he's taking a lot of vegetables.)

Not surprisingly, their personalities are projected onto their teams. Scurran's Sabino squads are flashy. They run multiple sets, do a lot of shifting before each play, and occasionally employ illegal formations. (In an early-season game in Montana, Sabino was flagged for several illegal-formation penalties. Depending on whom you ask, the Montana refs were either unfamiliar with Sabino's innovative techniques or perhaps just unwilling to let rules infractions slide.) Sabino always has a lot of weapons and Scurran uses them in a lot of different ways.

Vern Friedli uses an offense that came on the scene in the '60s, was big in the '70s, and then was pretty much discared by the '80s. He uses two or three plays over and over again. He'll run the same play repeatedly until the other team stops it, then he'll run that play to the opposite side.

Both men are wildly successful. Sabino has already won its 100th game in the '90s and Amphi will do so this season. Scurran's team has won eight conference titles in a row; Friedli's squads have won 18 of the last 23 5A-South championships.

But most of all, these two guys can't stand each other. I'm not talking professional rivalry here. I'm talking black people and the LAPD. Oh, they'll shake hands before and after the game and say the right things on camera and in the papers, but if they ever decided to go at it, they'd do better Pay-Per-View than Trinidad and De La Hoya.

Six Weeks Ago

SABINO WAS DOING big business selling "Beat Amphi" balloons and paraphernalia during Registration Week. At Amphi, a debate raged as to whether they should break tradition and move the big all-school pep rally away from Homecoming and have it on the day of the Sabino game. (Cooler heads prevailed and it will be held before tomorrow night's Homecoming game.)

Four Weeks Ago

A GUY WHO writes for one of the dailies asked me if I could give him a fresh angle on the game. "You know," he said, "a structure around which I can build a story." (My memory may be a bit shaky as to his exact words.)

I gave him the best example of the difference between the two schools. Amphi's best player is named Rocky; Sabino's best player is named Quinn.

He sniffed and told me that example was too simplistic. I told him that he worked for an editor who messed with his writing.

Game Week

A LOT WOULD depend on the two guys who wear the No. 5. For Sabino, Tyler Tribolet was a marked man. He had attended Amphi for the first two years, then went over to Sabino. In the afternoon paper, he made some vague reference as to how it was legal because his parents owned an apartment in the Sabino district as well as a house near Amphi. (It was probably due to lack of space that they left out the part of how he lives in the apartment with at least one parent, full time, in accordance with AIA regulations in order to be able to play for Sabino.)

Tribolet was careful about talking mess during game week; in the paper, he played it off as a rivalry among old friends. However, a quick survey of the Amphi squad failed to turn up anyone willing to list Tribolet as a friend, old or otherwise. However, his girlfriend of two years is an Amphi cheerleader, a relationship which has to be hard to maintain considering how far apart they live.

He has done well for himself, playing on a state championship team last year and starting for a Top 5 (in the state) team this season. In the paper, he listed education as one of the reasons for the transfer.

Amphi's No. 5, senior Andrew Hess, is a different story. For the first three years at Amphi, he played soccer and baseball. Then last spring, at the urging of long-time friend, UA All-Pac-10 linebacker Marcus Bell, he decided to give football a try.

"I was too small, even for Amphi," Hess explains. "But Marcus kept after me. He said I'd love it. His dad and my dad coached together at Pueblo back in the '70s. Our families have been close ever since, even after they moved up to St. Johns."

Hess went in and talked to Friedli, who was skeptical. The coach told him he'd have to put in all the work in the weight room, on the track and in practice, and even then, his chances of making the team, let alone playing, were slim.

Never having played a down of football before his senior year, Hess starts at wide receiver and defensive back for the Panthers.

"All that hard work really paid off," Hess exults. "I got bigger and stronger."

Exactly how big are you?

Without hesitation: "I'm 5'8" and 150 pounds."

Game Night

IT WAS AN almost perfect night for football. Once the sun went down, it was rather cool, a sensation almost forgotten by many. A thick cloud of smoke wafted over the east side of the field, but no one really complained because it brought with it the smell of the burgers being grilled at the snack bar.

Sabino was in home purple, while Amphi looked even smaller than usual in their whites. Scurran and Friedli chatted briefly before the game, both nervous for it to start. Sideline predictions ranged from Amphi winning a close game to Sabino winning in a rout. Sabino was 3-0, including a win in Montana and a 62-7 spanking of preseason 4A No. 1 Sahuaro. Amphi was an uncharacteristic 1-2, having lost to two powerful Phoenix teams before beating Sunnyside.

The Phoenix morning paper picked Sabino to win; the Tucson paper had Amphi winning a squeaker.

People looked for omens. Amphi had won both the freshman and JV games the night before, but Sabino looked loose and confident.

It turned out to be a good high-school game, full of intensity and crisp hitting. Amphi scored on an 80-yard touchdown run on the first play of the game, but after that, it just settled into a grind-it-out battle. Sabino scored twice in a three-minute span in the second quarter to go up 14-7, but then Amphi scored right before the half. A missed extra point left it 14-13 Sabino at the half.

The halftime show featured the Sabino band, a group large enough to conquer most Latin American nations.

Amphi took advantage of a Sabino fumble to kick a field goal early in the third quarter for a 16-14 lead. Sabino then went up 22-16 after a long drive.

It stayed that way until midway through the fourth. Amphi was backed up against its own goal line and had to punt. The Sabino receiver muffed the punt and there was a scramble for the ball. Had Amphi recovered, they would have had a short field to drive for the tying score. Instead, Sabino came up with it and drove for the final score of the night.

With the scoreboard showing the final 30-16 tally, the Sabino players shouted "We own this town!" without a touch of irony. Meanwhile, the Amphi players and fans, stung by the loss and facing the very real possibility that their team might miss the state playoffs for the first time since 1980, filed slowly out of the stadium. (An arcane AIA playoff system allows some Phoenix conferences to send three or four teams to the playoffs, while the South has sent only Amphi the past two years.)

Andrew Hess played okay, but Tyler Tribolet was pretty much a non-factor in the game, although he did help sustain an Amphi drive with a dumb personal-foul late hit on the Panther punter.

The man of the hour was do-it-all Quinn Gooch for Sabino. He blocked a punt, caught several passes, scored a rushing TD, and handled the kickoff duties.

"That Gooch kid was something," marveled Friedli after the game. "He's special."

The Amphi people just didn't get it. The Panthers were smaller, slower, fewer in number and less experienced than Sabino. Plus, they were playing on the road. Heck, isn't that the perfect situation for Amphi? They had Sabino right where they wanted them.

But sometimes Goliath wins. Heck, most of the time, Goliath wins. If that weren't the case, the occasional triumphs by David wouldn't mean nearly so much.

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