“I’m incredibly relaxed.”
Just days before the biggest game in his 20-year tenure leading the Pinnacle High football program, head coach Dana Zupke is at peace as he sits comfortably, legs crossed, on a bench inside the Pioneers’ weight room.
Saturday afternoon in the 6A State Championship Game, Pinnacle (9-4) will have the opportunity to atone for their sloppy, shutout loss to 10-3 Highland in late October.
Our near 20-minute conversation covers a myriad of topics – when he knew this summer this team could be special, what went wrong, and right, in their first game against Highland the first time around, the spunk of his sophomore quarterback Wyatt Horton, and much more.
But it was apparent nothing has usurped Zupke’s big-picture vision as he prepares for the most important game in his high school head coaching career.
“I’m ecstatic,” Zupke said to the “Zone Read,” describing the opportunity to compete for a state championship. “This is what you play for, this is what you want. But I think my lens has shifted more to my [players] and the program. What it means for the program…I want this for my kids more than I want this for anything else.
“My seniors. This is their last shot. If they don’t win it, they don’t get another chance. I’ll get another chance.”
— Gabey Graphics (@GabeyGraphics) December 3, 2022
Pinnacle’s players fully comprehend what this game means for their long-time head coach.
“Being able to bring this state title home for Coach Zupke, it would probably mean more to us that it would to him,” senior wide receiver Duce Robinson said to the “Zone Read.” “I can speak for everyone in this program when I say, he gave us our shot. He gave me a shot when I was a young freshman. I hadn’t even played a down of real football yet. He entrusted me with a varsity jersey.”
Pinnacle’s players have come to appreciate and respect Zupke’s “tough love” throughout their time in the program.
“He’s family, but he doesn’t always express it,” fellow senior wide receiver Myles Libman explained. “He shows that he cares for you, that he’ll go to war with you, that he’ll do anything for you. He comes in here seven days a week trying to [win a state championship]. Now, he finally has a chance. It means a lot to be able to be the first team to have the a chance to put that gold ball in his hands.”
— 🅿️INNACLE FOOTBALL (@GoBigBlue_PHS) December 6, 2022
Even before a game of this magnitude, Zupke understands winning his first state championship as a head coach is important to himself, but there are far bigger responsibilities which hold greater importance to him in his position of leadership.
“My purpose is to have an impact on young people’s lives,” he explained. “We all say it as coaches, and I believe every coach believes it, but I take that very serious and I’ve been more intentional this year than I’ve been in any other year. That’s what carries me forward.”
Pinnacle Pioneers had the opportunity to visit Arizona State University, site of Saturday’s 6A Conference State Championship game.
Thank you to Coach Dillingham and staff for the hospitality pic.twitter.com/F0MeQrOJqn
— 🅿️INNACLE FOOTBALL (@GoBigBlue_PHS) December 6, 2022
Zupke, who won three state titles as an assistant under legendary Ron Estabrook at Chaparral, admitted some periods of anxiety and self-doubt in the past about not being able to “win the big one” at Pinnacle but found inner-strength by stepping back and re-evaluating his position with a larger scope as PHS’s head coach.
“Selfishly, to have a kid tell you you impacted his life in a positive way…that sustains.”
Basha’s Bear-Necessities: Maturity
Midway though our conversation Basha head coach Chris McDonald paused.
“Let me tell you a quick story.”
From there, he unpacked a tale of his once-young team who has grown up, and into an Open Division Championship-caliber program, in front of him over the past couple of seasons.
“When set our weekly schedule this week,” McDonald explained to the “Zone Read.” “I asked the [players], ‘We get on the bus at 3:15 to head over to ASU on Saturday.’ We have a pre-game meal before that. I said, ‘Hey, you guys want to come in about 1:00 to do our walk-through and then we can eat our pre-game meal and then we can go from there?’ They said, ‘No coach, we want our walk-through to be at 8:00AM.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ That’s how dialed in they are.”
McDonald understands the challenge ahead Saturday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
On the opposite sideline is Saguaro, almost left for the Open Division graveyard after three early-season losses but head coach Jason Mohns, as he and his staff always seem to do, has no#SagU peaking when the Valley temperatures start dropping.
However, this Basha team appears ready for the heavyweight fight against the defending Open Division champions.
The 11-1 Bears have shown resolve, grit, and maturity dating all the way back to their September 3rd season-opener in southern California when they erased a 21-0 first quarter deficit and pulled out a 33-28 win against a nine-win team who went unbeaten in region play. After their early October loss to Liberty, McDonald’s team beat Chandler twice, Hamilton, 6A top-seed Casteel, and ALA-Queen Creek on their way to the final step in hopes of hoisting the ultimate gold ball under the lights in Tempe.
Extremely proud of these young men both on and off the field. The journey has been a blast working daily with them. https://t.co/WscQDO27DR
— Chris McDonald (@coachcmcdonald) November 12, 2022
“Our kids are fighters,” McDonald continued. “I don’t think there’s a defining moment [to our season] but those are defining moments of who they are as a team, quite frankly.”
McDonald and his staff are now reaping the benefits of playing a number of key players as underclassmen, most notably 2024 4-star prospect Demond Williams, Jr., who has started on varsity since his freshman season.
Class of ‘23. My guys!! https://t.co/4FbJtsb36L
— Chris McDonald (@coachcmcdonald) December 7, 2022
“We’ve got really good leadership,” he explained. “With maturity, usually comes leadership. Really, the second half of the season, a lot of our kids step up and do the pre-game speeches because of their leadership abilities. I think peer-to-peer means more, anyway. A lot of these guys have played big-time football…here we are in the state championship but football is football, right?”
The key for the Bears, according to McDonald, is simple: play good defense and run the ball effectively.
Kickoff is set for just after 6:00.
As Fate Would Have It
Have you ever been out in public and ran into two of your ex’s…at the same place?
Hollywood would have a hard time upstaging Joseph Ortiz’s dilemma this coming Friday night in Tempe.
Cactus vs. Higley…😳
— Joseph Ortiz (@JosephO24) December 3, 2022
For tweet context, Ortiz was Higley’s offensive coordinator from 2010-17 under current Knights’ head coach Eddy Zubey before taking over as the head coach of Cactus from ’17-21, where current Cobras’ head coach Brian Belles served as Ortiz’s defensive coordinator.
Got all that?
Ortiz, who just completed his first season as head coach at Perry isn’t sure what to think about the 5A State Championship Game.
“I’m super torn,” he explained to the “Zone Read.” “It’s the school who first gave me a shot to be a head coach and those [Cactus] seniors mean a lot to me. They were the hardest decision in [me] coming to Perry. We had some really good teams and runs. Higley and Zubey were the reasons I got the head coach job at Cactus. He’s one of my best friends and my mentor. Zubey has been working so hard to get to this point.
“It’s going to be a battle.”
There are 47 5A schools and, coincidentally, this is Cactus’ first season in the conference after being elevated from 4A at the conclusion of last year.
Sometimes these stories just tell themselves.