What our sports guy learned from Salpointe's state championship win

Just as there are few things more sacred in this world than another man's fries, there aren't many things that bring Tucsonans together to tackle a common goal.

A collective distaste of all things Maricopa County is one of them, though. If it involves Phoenix, Mesa, Glendale or any of those other overpopulated burbs, and it affects Tucson in any way, well ... cover your ears, kids.

But even I was amazed at the turnout at Arizona Stadium on Friday night to see Salpointe Catholic High School's football team. The Lancers, playing in their first state championship since 1991, faced Scottsdale Chaparral for the Division II title.

A good 6,000 fans were spread across what's normally the Zona Zoo student section (as well as some seating areas in the second level) and cheered mightily for a school that, outside of its alumni and those currently affiliated with it, is generally looked at by the community with a mixture of disdain and jealousy.

That's a typical opinion about a private school smack dab in the middle of one of the worst-run school districts in the country.

But Salpointe was the home team on Friday, and not just because it was playing only a few miles south of its campus. For at least this night, it was Tucson's team, and it didn't disappoint the fans.

Despite a shaky start that saw them fall behind for the first time all season, the Lancers blitzed Chaparral for a 46-20 victory to earn their first football championship.

The Salpointe side of the stadium was filled mostly with current and former students, not to mention family and friends of those involved with the team.

"We've never had a crowd that big," said stud wide receiver/cornerback/kick returner Cameron Denson, a UA commit for next season who pointed out that he's now "1-0 in my home stadium."

How big a game was it? For the first time in as long as anyone could remember, the school's marching band attended a game not at home.

But there were also hundreds of unaffiliated fans who were there to root on the hometown team as a sign of solidarity when facing a Phoenix foe.

"When push comes to shove, when it's Phoenix versus Tucson—," Salpointe coach Dennis Bene said after the game, between hugs from what seemed like 200 people— "we're all glad the trophy is staying in Tucson."

Bene went to Glendale last season to watch Ironwood Ridge win the Division II title at University of Phoenix Stadium, doing so to support Tucson football in general. That love was reciprocated with the Lancers getting to play in town this year, an occasion made possible because Sun Devil Stadium was off-limits due to the Arizona-ASU game, and the U of P Stadium folks refusing to allow more than one game (the Phoenix-only Division I final) on its playing surface.

Salpointe finished the 2013 season 14-0, outscoring its opponents 697-101 in the process. The touchdown it allowed to Chaparral in the first quarter Friday was the first it had yielded in the opening quarter all year. The 26-point margin of victory was also its "closest" result, a sign of just how dominant the Lancers were.

But even with the vast majority of Pima County's football talent on its roster—a byproduct of being able to draw student-athletes from all over the region with the allure of a Catholic education in a college-prep atmosphere—there was a load of pressure on Salpointe to come through. The Lancers had made the semifinals several times since that last title game appearance 22 years ago, but always fell victim to a superior Phoenix opponent.

Throw in the expectations and desires of alumni (you know, the check-writers and endowment-padders) to win, and this wasn't just about a bunch of high school kids living the dream.

This was about a former Salpointe player—who was on the 1981 team that was shut out by Phoenix's Trevor Browne in the Class 5A final —who took over the program as head coach in 2001 with the singular goal of bringing the school a much-sought-after championship.

It was about an athletic director, Phil Gruensfelder, a former science teacher and state title-winning softball coach who has run Salpointe's athletic program since 1999. For years he worked tirelessly to convince the administration and devoted alumni that the school's smaller enrollment no longer warranted it playing at the highest level of competition in the state.

Salpointe's enrollment is less than 1,100, but for the longest time it was matched with Phoenix schools that had no fewer than 2,000—and often upward of 3,000—students to choose from. Gruensfelder needed years to smooth over the egos that didn't care about travel costs or enrollment discrepancies and wanted to be up with the big boys because that's how it was in our day.

But a new day is here. And Salpointe is a champion. Everyone can go back to pooh-poohing the school in a few weeks.

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