Hoping to avoid going 1-9 for the first time since 2013, the year before Jeremiah Smith took over the helm as head coach, and looking to claim the city championship for the first time since Smith's inaugural year, the Coconino Panthers head into Friday's game in the Walkup Skydome looking to make a big push for a victory.
Ranked No. 35 in the 4A Conference out of 43 teams, the Panthers take on a 21st-ranked Flagstaff Eagles team that, much like Coconino's seasonlong struggle, has been unable to put up sufficient offensive numbers in order to win games.
Unless Coconino's receivers and backs pick up the pace, the improved defense will again be forced to try to keep the team close while spending much of the game on the field. With the offensive line's best healthy and ready to gear up, Coconino wants to take full advantage of the help up front.
"We need a heavy push so we can run the ball downfield, get some hits," said Zack Christopher, a leader on both sides of the ball for the Panthers. "We just really need the O-line to be strong and push through."
Since losing some of their key players to injury, the Eagles, who are now healthy, have scored 22 points in the last two games and given up 63. Meanwhile, Coconino has averaged nearly 11 points per game leading up to the crosstown rivalry match, going scoreless in two games against the Mohave Thunderbirds and the Mingus Union Marauders.
"We have to execute and cut out the little mistakes," Smith said. "Most of our drives, there will either be a fumble, or a bad snap, which usually starts a lot of that. Avoid penalties. We talked about the mental part of the game, being mentally ready to go."
The team is doing all it can in preparation for the meeting, including practicing in the Skydome.
“We went over there so that way we could have a practice inside it and simulate what it feels like, what it looks like,” Smith said, adding that even having the crowd so close and above the sidelines makes a difference in the feel of the game.
Last year at this time, Coconino's defense had allowed an average of 44 points per game. This season, on the other hand, it has given up an average of 30.5 points per game.
Giving the defense a solid effort has been Christopher's role all season. The senior, who also works out of the backfield, has set the tone on the defensive side of the ball, collecting 94 tackles, 55 coming solo, for team highs in both this season. Last week, he tied the school record for most solo tackles in a game with 11, a number David Quick registered last season.
"I feel like we have a really stout defense, and I plan on breaking that record this week," Christopher said.
A large part of the defense's success has come from players who were new to the turf this season. Both coming from the basketball court to join in on the Friday night lights action, seniors Abel Harris and Brett McGowan have been leaders in sacks, with the former owning a team-best five and the later tied with Kade Owen for the second most at three. In the secondary, Emilio Esquivel, another newcomer from the hoops program, has a team-high three interceptions.
"We need to make them work for everything. If they score, it's because they had to work for it, not because we gave it up easy. Haven't been trying to hype the game, just telling them, 'It's just another game -- I know it's not just another game -- but settle down,'" Smith said through a smile.
Winners of two of their last 16 games, Coconino enters the Skydome hoping to avoid hitting a low, while Flagstaff enters trying to reach a high in the form of seven wins in a season for the first time since 2012.
Win or lose, Smith said there's always something more important about the season finale, especially now that he's coming to the end of his fourth season.
“It’s not so much the game, it’s trying to get every last moment I can with those seniors, and just trying to soak it in and remember those things. We’ve been talking the last couple days about how they came in as freshman and about JV year and what they’ve improved on,” Smith said.