By Richard Smith, Independent Newsmedia
For most of the decade, the Sunrise Mountain offense cast a considerable shadow.
Since 2011, the Mustangs averaged more than 40 points a game in every year except 2013. Every year, the team would get in memorable shootouts.
But three scores stood out — 52-38, 41-21 and 52-49. Those were the finals of three home playoff losses that came at least one round earlier than expected, as quality opponents at least slowed down the Sunrise Mountain offense enough to exploit its defensive holes.
With the playoffs on tap Friday, this scenario should not repeat itself. Sunrise Mountain has a legitimate defense this season, giving up 10 points a contest through the first nine games and repeatedly setting up the offense with short fields
“It’s great to see that our team is taking over the game. Now when the offense is down, the defense can always pick them up and likewise,” senior linebacker Gavin Chaddock said.
Prior Mustangs teams posted some solid defensive profiles, but there was the general sense that most of those performances came after the offense burst out of the gates with a big early lead, forcing opponents out of their game plan and playing into a blitzing defense’s strong suit.
This season, a veteran unit with something to prove is disrupting offenses all on their own. 4A playoff teams Cactus and Greenway were shut out.
And unlike previous versions, the defense did not crack against better competition. The 28-25 victory over Liberty Sept. 8 included a kickoff return touchdown. Then the unit kept the Mustangs in the 24-21 loss to 4A No. 1 Scottsdale Saguaro despite four offensive turnovers.
“What we really preached was having a relentless attack to the football. In the Liberty game and then solidified in the Saguaro game, we realized the pursuit we had to the ball and the speed we had getting to the ball. That dictates to our opponent, how the game is going to be played. The kids have bought in tenfold into how that works. Going into the playoffs, I think it’s going to pay off big time,” co-defensive coordinator Bobby Ramirez said.
Ramirez shares defensive coordinator duties with Jerry Cravens and both deflect praise for the vast improvements. They say this group is led by seniors who are selfless, speedy and smart on the field. Plus, Cravens said, they thrive on being challenged — being told they can’t do something.
These kids have been in sysytem since their freshman year. Many played varsity as sophomores and they’ve bought in better than their predecessors.
They also credit expanded offseason speed work and the introduction of extensive weight training classes.
“Most successful defenses in football are team defenses, not individual defenses. These guys have bought-in and understood that. The overall team speed and pursuit of the ball shows up there,” Cravens said.
Ironically, the coordinators credited the architect of the Mustangs offense, Coach Steve Decker, with putting the foundation down for a better defense when he moved up to head coach after the 2015 season. Cravens said Decker gave he and Ramirez a mission statement, build a faster, stronger defense.
Along the way, the Class of 2018 worked on improving the team concept of this defense. Few Sunrise Mountain players posted eye-popping numbers in the regular season, yet each cog in the machine has improved the way its job is done.
“You can also tell in the stats. We all don’t have an outrageous amount of tackles or sacks. We all pretty much have equal tackles. That tells you that we’re feeding off of each other,” senior linebacker Brody Webb said.
Webb is one of the newcomers to a well-seasoned back eight of this defense — Sunrise Mountain typically runs a three-man front. The outside linebacker is part of the unit’s core alone with Chaddock in the middle and Bobby Ramirez, the son of the coach, at strong safety.
“Brody’s the speedster and the guy that comes off the edge and causes havoc. Gavin swallows everything up in the middle and plays sideline to sideline. Bobby’s kind of that clean up guy that comes in and makes sure the tackle is made,” Coach Ramirez said. “Their style of play, individually, is great. But they’re perfect for each other.”
Webb leads the team with nine sacks in the first nine games and Ramirtez is the clear leader in total tackles with 78. Chaddock leads with three fumbles forced, and unoficially paces the team in ‘wow’ plays, be they big hits, crucial sacks of an interception return for the touckdown.
“Give Gavin a lot of credit. We asked him last year to play defensive line. We had a very deep linebacker corps last year and he bought in. He showed great leadership and that’s paying dividends this year with moving him back to middle linebacker and letting him be that relentless player.”
While the exploits of Chaddock, Ramirez and Webb may draw a bit more attention, three other seniors who did not play much last season could easily be considered the heart of the defense.
In his second year after transferring from Joy Christian, Arrick Dowe has developed intyo a lockdown corner. Coach Ramirez said the game plan called for Dowe to go one-on-one with a top receiver several times this year.
Dowe has delivered, with six interceptions (and 111 return yards) and five passes defensed.
Senior defensive end Jake Radon returned at midseason from an ACL injury that cost him all of 2016. The larger of the Mustangs’ two ends, Radan has become the other linchpin to the defense.
While Dowe’s coverage skills help the Mustangs with their defensive math, Radon hurt’s opponents by often requiring a double team, freeing the linebackers to pursue.
Senior Craig Dennis bookends Webb at outside linebacker and wreaks similar havoc in the backfield, with six sacksand 12 tackles for loss. Dennis was injured recently and junior utilty linebacker Bo Moore filled in ably.
Senior defensive tackle Jaelon Luten was the other known quantity, and has held up well as the Mustangs’ only true two-way player.
“We trust each other, that the other guys are going to be there making a play. Everyone is pretty smart about the game and always watching film about opponents and scouting out plays to see what they run.”
The other four starters were more unknown quantities entering the season. Teammates thought enough of Dylan Carioscia’s leadership qualities to name him a captain this year.
But the senior handled the move from linebacker to free safety very well, with six passes defensed.
“Dylan Carisosa has stepped up a lot, going from linebacker to safety. He’ll come down and hit the holes hard and is always on his man,” fellow safety Bobby Ramirez said.
Senior Jake Cravens has thrived as an undersized defensive end. Junior Hunter Olson gives the Mustangs another athletic, 200-plus-pound thumper next to Chaddock.
Perhaps no Sunrise Mountain player has been a bigger surprise than 5-6, 145-pound senior corner Noah Portela.
“Our other corner Noah Portela is an animal for how small he is. He’s just a beast against anyone he’s put up to,” Webb said.
The memory of allowing 21 fourth quarter points in the second round loss to Catalina Foothills remains.
This time, with smarter and more selfless play, plus greatly improved condidtioning, the defense believes it is built to last.
“I think the weight training class we have has helped us all improve as we go through this season, instead of leveling off as we did last season,” Ramirez said.