Dennis Bene sits in his office before practice.
He fidgets with his white Salpointe Catholic hat. Turns it to the right, to the left, straightens it out.
The coach is ready for practice.
Tuesday will be a light day. Players wear “uppers” — helmets, shoulder pads and workout shorts — and won’t hit much. Full pads, and full contact, come Wednesday.
“At this point in the season, everything is mental,” Bene said. “If they understand what they’re supposed to do, there won’t be any hesitations on Friday.”
If the Lancers beat Glendale Deer Valley in tonight’s Division II state semifinals at Marana High School, they’ll have four more practices.
And one more game, the biggest in school history.
Salpointe hasn’t advanced to the state championship game since 1991, and in almost 60 years of existence, it has never won the title.
But this is supposed to be the year.
The top-seeded Lancers are 12-0, coming off a 45-14 win against Peoria Liberty last week. It was the first time Salpointe allowed more than nine points in a game this season, and just the second in which they scored fewer than 48.
The Star went behind the scenes at Salpointe’s practice Tuesday to observe, from start to finish, how the top-seeded Lancers go about their business:
3:55 p.m.: Bene, offensive line coach Al Alexander and quarterback coach Sean Brevaire talk before offensive and defensive meetings begin. Brevaire is wearing a Tampa Bay Buccaneers shirt but says he is actually a diehard Buffalo Bills fan. Bene jokes that Brevaire “probably has a tattoo of the Bills logo on his (butt).”
4:01 p.m.: Bene sits outside the office. Downstairs, the defense is meeting with coordinator Joe Bernier. Quarterback Andrew Cota grabs a banana cream flavored Muscle Milk and opens it. He pulls up a foldout chair, and puts it next to Brevaire, who is sitting at Bene’s desk. They begin reviewing Deer Valley game film on Bene’s Dell computer.
The tape could give Salpointe an edge Friday — or not.
“We always laugh: Everything we watch on film is always different when we play,” Brevaire says. “No team runs what they normally run against us. Everyone tries to reinvent the wheel.”
Cota asks Brevaire to email him some of the footage.
4:15 p.m.: Brevaire and Cota leave the office. Bene walks around the corner and downstairs into the team’s meeting room. It’s locked, he knocks on the door, and Bernier lets him in just as the defensive meeting is wrapping up. A painted slogan — “Believe. Fight. Win” — dominates one wall of the room; below it is plastered with team plaques, jerseys and photos framed of moments in Salpointe football history.
4:20 p.m.: The defensive meeting is over, the defensive players and coaches — who don’t play on offense, too — are sent out, and the offense pours in. Cameron Denson, Salpointe’s star receiver and UA commit, walks in about 30 seconds after everyone is already seated. He finds a chair next to fellow UA commit Kaelin Deboskie.
4:23 p.m.: Using a whiteboard as his canvas, Bene discusses how they’ll counteract Deer Valley’s various defensive looks. At one point, Denson raises his hand and asks a question about a play call. Bene responds by drawing up the play on the whiteboard. Bene ends the meeting by saying “have a damn good practice” and that he wants a good tempo. As the players exit to gear up and stretch, Bene stays back and talks strategy with Brevaire, Alexander and David Rodriguez, the Sahuarita coach who Bene says is “a good friend.”
4:35 p.m.: “Let’s go! Let’s go! Let’s go!” Bene screams. The team huddles around him at midfield. Bene says, among other things: “Let’s have a great practice. We need to have a great day. You’re this close to your goal.” They break the huddle and begin stretching.
4:53 p.m. Practice is in full swing. Denson moves to the south 30-yard line to work with the defensive backs. Across the field, offensive linemen start working. Kicker Alex Flores is kicking 27-yard field goals while Cota stands at the 40, slinging passes to scout team receivers.
4:55 p.m.: Bene is interviewed at the 50-yard line by Channel 4. He’s asked about last week’s win against Liberty, this week’s matchup with Deer Valley, what his thoughts are on having the game played at a neutral site — he likes the Marana High School field because “Marana’s a fast track, and we have speed on our side.”
5:02 p.m.: Stacy Collins, the head coach from Division II South Dakota State School of Mines approaches Bene on the sideline. Collins is there to see three players. Bene says this is the time of the year when he hears from Division II schools. Stetson was there recently, and he talked to Cornell over the phone a couple of days earlier.
5:15 p.m.: Bene, talking to Collins, calls over Santiago Nieto, a senior defensive back. Collins asks Nieto if he’s ever seen Mount Rushmore. Nieto says he hasn’t. Collins asks Nieto what he would like to major in, he says “business, or engineering” and asks what number he wears. Nieto says 13. Collins laughs and mentions that his offensive coordinator was a No. 13, so he loves anyone who wears that number.
5:17 p.m.: The offense and defense line up at the south end zone’s 5-yard line to practice goal-line formations and play calls.
5:20 p.m.: The team has special teams review, split evenly between punt returns and kickoff coverage.
5:25 p.m.: Positions split up again. Receivers run routes at the 20-yard line on the southeast side with receivers/tight ends coach Jay Dobyns throwing.
5:35 p.m.: Offensive and defensive starters line up at the 35- and 40-yard lines and practice rushing play calls. Handoffs, read options, designed quarterback runs, things of that sort. No tackling. After a couple of minutes, Denson relieves Cota at quarterback.
5:50 p.m.: Bene yells “bring it in,” the team converges at the 40-yard line, and everyone takes a knee in front of Bene. He speaks for a couple minutes. “Keep doing what you’re doing … we don’t need to change anything … let them have the penalties … don’t hurt yourselves, let them make the mistakes.” Players are told to watch extra film on their own time. The team huddles up and breaks with a “1-2-3, S-C!” chant.
5:52 p.m. Players take off their helmets and put them down at the back of the south end zone, then walk up to the goal line. Bene heads to his office as Carla Garrett —strength and conditioning coach — readies them for “suicides,” ritual running drills almost as old as football itself. In the first set, they run to the 5, back to the goal line, to the 10, back to the goal line, and to the 15 before backpedaling to the goal line. They do this four times. Denson is often the first to finish, 6-foot-5-inch, 330-pound lineman Breeon Auzenne the last.
5:56 p.m.: Water break. Garrett, a former UA strength and conditioning coach, chews a red apple as she yells at the players to get back to the goal line. “We run hard at Santa Rita,” Garrett screams, before catching herself. Wrong school. Players crack up.
6:05 p.m.: Bene gathers some things in his office and gets ready to go home. “We just try to keep our practices crisp, light and make sure they’re enjoying it, make sure that everyone’s fresh” he said.
A student manager knocks on the door, comes in and asks Bene for his keys so he can go back and shut off the field’s lights.
The lights on the field shut off, and everyone heads home.