Rivalry Preview: Bears seek 2nd straight region title

Bradshaw Mountain quarterback Austin Gonzales (13) cuts through the defense Sept. 22 in Prescott Valley. Gonzales and the Bears have a chance to claim a Grand Canyon region title tonight in Prescott. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, File)

Bradshaw Mountain quarterback Austin Gonzales (13) cuts through the defense Sept. 22 in Prescott Valley. Gonzales and the Bears have a chance to claim a Grand Canyon region title tonight in Prescott. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. (Les Stukenberg/Courier, File)

Win or go home. The message at practice this week was clear for Bradshaw Mountain’s football team, which must beat rival Prescott tonight at 7 p.m. in its regular-season finale at Bill Shepard Field to repeat as Grand Canyon region champions to earn a berth into the 16-team 4A state tournament.

Bradshaw Mountain opened the 2017 season with a 0-5 record. Marred by silly penalties and turnovers, the Bears appeared to be removed from the picture. However, first-year coach Chuck Moller has rallied his troops, who’ve rattled off four consecutive victories, all in region, to give themselves a shot at redemption.

The No. 24-ranked Bears (4-5, 4-1 Grand Canyon) have qualified for the playoffs in each of the past three seasons, winning two out of the last three region championships. If they are to keep their postseason streak alive, they must win in hostile territory against a Badgers team that could spoil Bradshaw Mountain’s run on the 25th anniversary of this rivalry.

“If we win, we’re in the playoffs,” Moller said. “If we don’t, we’re not. Period.”

No. 15 Prescott (6-3, 4-1 Grand Canyon) also needs a victory to stay in the playoff race as an at-large selection. If the Badgers beat the Bears, they would hand No. 16 Mingus Union (5-4, 5-1 Grand Canyon) the region title and an automatic qualification.

The Marauders’ last region title came in 2015.

In practice, Bradshaw Mountain focused on defending Prescott’s offensive tendencies, particularly stopping senior wideout John Chaffeur, whom Moller calls the Badgers’ “go-to guy.” Moller wants to contain Chaffeur on screen passes and short crossing routes. In the running game, Prescott senior tailback Ryan Greene is equally dangerous, though, and Moller knows that.

KEYS TO VICTORY

Bradshaw Mountain enters the rivalry game healthy (only junior wideout/defensive back Austin Yarbrough, who has a bad hamstring, remains out), and it must execute well enough in three areas to knock off Prescott tonight, Moller said.

No. 1: Win the kicking game.

“We have to win field position, and you do that by getting downfield and covering the kicks,” Moller said. “If your kicker’s good enough to kick it out of the end zone, you’ve got to make them start at the 20 [yard line] every time.”

On punts, Prescott usually positions three return men deep. Bradshaw Mountain has been pretty good lately about limiting return yardage with Luke Huenemyer as the primary punter.

The Bears are fortunate to have senior kicker Brandon Fischer, who consistently boots the ball out of the end zone, forcing the opponent to start drives at the 20. He drills his field goals and extra points, too, rarely missing. He’s missed only one PAT this season – on a botched hold.

“People don’t realize how good he really is,” Moller said of Fischer. “He’s about 80 percent out of the back of the end zone [on kickoffs]. He’s already kicked a 47- and a 43-yard field goal on the year. He’s as good a Division I prospect as I’ve seen, and definitely a Division II prospect.”

No. 2: Protect the ball.

“We’ve got to protect the ball on offense and when we’re on special teams, and we’ve got to create turnovers when we’re on defense,” Moller said.

The coach said the turnover battle becomes heightened in a rivalry game.

“Whoever wins the turnover battle is going to have a chance to win the game,” Moller added. “It gets right back to the kicking game. If you can block a punt, we’re going to try. If you can block a kick, we’re going to try. Those are game-turners, because then it gets down to field position.”

During their five-game losing streak, the Bears shot themselves in the foot. For instance, they were whistled for 10 to 14 penalties per contest, including preventable offside and personal-foul calls. In its wins, on the other hand, Bradshaw Mountain trimmed that number to about three flags per game.

The Bears also turned the ball over in their losses. For example, in its lone region setback to Flagstaff, Bradshaw Mountain surrendered 18 points on turnovers – after a pick-six inside its 10-yard line, and fumbles inside its 3 and 6.

“There’s never a time I accept turnovers,” Moller said. “Ever.”

The Bears have protected the ball much better since the end of September, and they’ve allowed no more than 16 points in the past four games.

No. 3: Execute the offense.

“When they load the box, we’ll be throwing,” Moller said. “If they have a balanced box, we’ll be running the ball and throwing, both.”

Bradshaw Mountain junior quarterback Austin Gonzales is a dual threat who can pass and run effectively. Much like his offensive and defensive lines, in the backfield Moller goes with a committee of guys. Junior tailbacks Logan Brannan, Victor Arenas and David Mata run in and out regularly.

Moller praised Gonzales, who’s in his first season as a starter, for his progression.

“We’re going to go back and forth [passing and rushing] and do what we’ve done all year long, which is try and take advantage of what the defense gives us,” Moller said.

RIVALRY ADVICE

Moller’s strategy in handling the pressure of a rivalry game is to “not get caught up in the hype” and to treat it like a regular contest. For the players in particular, that’s much easier said than done.

Besides the playoffs being at stake, the winner of tonight’s game either holds onto or reclaims the rivalry cup trophy. The Bears won 41-15 last year in Prescott Valley.

“Yeah, we want to beat them – they’re our next-door neighbor, we’ve got to live with it for a year,” Moller said. “There’s no question about it. It’s a big game. But, on the other hand, we get all emotional about it where we start making silly penalties, make alignment mistakes, we’ll have things that’ll happen in the game that we don’t want.”

Doug Cook is a sports reporter for The Daily Courier. Follow him on Twitter at @dougout_dc. Email dcook@prescottaz.com or call 928-445-3333, ext. 2039.