One could say that Tempe Prep Academy's football team has been in playoff mode since Sept. 14. That's no stretch. Not when the Knights were 0-3 when they awoke that day, had not scored a point and allowed 90 points to the likes of Yuma Catholic, top D-IV seed Show Low and defending D-V champ Northwest Christian.
Was Tempe Prep coach Thomas Brittain worried? Some. But not enough to throw in the towel.
“I was depressed,” Brittain said. “We'd been in the semifinals the year before and had a great junior class. I figured when the season began we'd have a good chance to make a run again. It would have been easy for us to doubt at that point. I knew deep down we'd get better. Our schedule lightened up, but we still had to win a bunch of games.”
Win a bunch they did. The Knights have managed to reel off eight wins in a row and needed every one. On Saturday (Nov. 16) Tempe Prep makes the trek to Eager to take on No. 4 Round Valley (10-1) at 7 p.m.
No team in D-V that lost four times in the regular season advanced to the playoffs. TPA was one of four with three losses that survived. As the No. 12 seed with a 7-3 record last Saturday, the Knights avenged one of their three losses by knocking off Northwest Christian, 21-0. This after losing to the Crusaders, 28-0, almost two months earlier.
Tempe Prep cinched its playoff berth by edging Scottsdale Prep, 27-26, the final game of the regular season. Scottsdale Prep qualified for the playoffs as well, but Brittain wasn't that pleased hanging on to that victory by a thread.
“I was a little demoralized after that one,” Brittain said. “We were up 14-0 and had a touchdown called back by a clip that would have made it 21-0. Instead of being up that much, the game ended up tied 14-14 at the half. We did win the game and got in. I'm not sure we would have had we lost. That game shook my confidence a bit.”
The victory last week over Northwest Christian, however, restored Brittain's side-swiped psyche. He, like most other D-V observers, believe the title is up for grabs among many of the eight remaining teams.
“Who's the favorite in our division?,' Brittain said. “You'll get a lot of different opinions, and they're all valid.”
No one facet of Tempe Prep's play has stood out above another in the winning streak that has shot the Knights into the title equation. Brittain said a handful of players have stepped up recently or earlier in the year to deliver clutch performances.
Tempe Prep had to solidfy its lines after losing a pair of key seniors last year. Senior lineman Ryan Whalen, who was injured in the fourth game of the season and at one point figured to miss the rest of the season, returned in time for the season finale with Scottsdale Prep. Whalen has bolstered improved line play. Senior Joseph Zwemke stepped up his defensive game. He is among the top three in tackles (most on the D-Line) and leads the team with 5.5 sacks.
Most of the Tempe Prep's top skill players graduated, so the newcomers have been many. Stepping in and solidifying the quarterback position has been senior Benjamin LeBeau, who took over as the starter the fifth game of the season. Brittain said LeBeau's leadership behind center has been huge plus his play in the secondary. He leads the team in interceptions with five. And one of Brittain's two sons on the team, sophomore running back Isaiah Brittain, has delivered back-to-back 100-yard plus rushing games and multiple TDs in wins over Scottsdale Prep and Northwest Christian. Isaiah Brittain has rushed for 299 yards the last two games.
“We took our lumps early,” Brittain said. “I wanted to play some teams I knew would be tough early. Our section had several teams (three) that were moving up from eight-man football. I think the tough schedule at the start paid dividends. For a while there, it made me look crazy.”