It’s been 32 years, and Dennis Bene hasn’t forgotten.
It was 1981, and Bene was a sophomore backup quarterback at Salpointe Catholic High School, and the Lancers made it all the way to the Class 5A state championship game.
Then they lost, 20-0, to Phoenix Trevor Browne High School.
Bene reels off facts as if they are common knowledge — Jeff Heidrick breaking a rib, and the team’s heart, early in the game — and sensory details that are not.
“I remember coach called a rollout right, and that image is still in my brain,” Bene said from his chair, after staring off into the distance, a reel and a projector almost flashing from his eyes. “The grass field. The stadium. Being down there and looking up at this giant stadium. It was a dream. It would be really great to go back as a head coach.
“For me, things would come full circle.”
The circumference is almost complete.
Bene, who’s gone from player to coach, and the Lancers have just completed one of the most dominating regular seasons in Tucson football history. They enter tonight’s playoff game against Yuma Cibola at 10-0, having outscored their opponents by a combined 497-53.
Now they stand at the doorway of greatness. Knock three times, and they’ll have a chance to waltz in.
The setting would be the same — the Division II state championship game will be held at Arizona Stadium — but the satisfaction would be different.
As a player, Bene would’ve savored the win, remembered it for life.
Now, it means something more.
“It ultimately validates what you do,” he said. “You talk to great football coaches, and there’s a process, and when you win it all, it validates the process. The training, the preparation, the style, the scheme. We’re doing something right.”
That’s what makes last year’s loss in the state semifinals so tough, when it all went so wrong.
• • •
It’s been 358 days, and Taylor Powell hasn’t forgotten.
“I got hurt in the second quarter, and that was rough,” the Lancers’ starting middle linebacker said of the team’s 28-14 loss to Peoria Centennial last Nov. 16. “Not being able to help my team through that … that was hard. It was rough for all of us.”
Bene most of all.
High school football coaches are the rare breed that cannot practice what they preach. They tell players, “One snap and clear.” Forget mistakes, forget failure.
Then they go home, and the slightest thing will make them remember every single second of a loss.
Bene knows what went wrong.
“For me, it hurts more because I hurt for my coaches and players,” Bene said. “I really do feel responsible for the failure. That’s really the worst part about this. I take it personal. That’s who I am.”
High above Bene’s right shoulder, Vince Lombardi looks down on him, framed for posterity, with the words, “What it takes to be No. 1.” Bene is trying to find out. He thinks he knows.
Perseverance, fortune, health, confidence.
“And lastly, you have to be very well-prepared,” Bene said.
That’s what makes last season’s loss to Centennial so painful, so very painful.
Bene said the Lancers worked hard in preparation, but maybe not smart. Salpointe adjusted to the Coyotes rather than force the Coyotes to adapt to them.
“That was the major flaw,” Bene said. “This year, we’re not compromising what we do for anybody. The things we do well, we’re going to do them.”
They’re going to do them, and they are hoping and praying that they do them right, because they never, ever want to feel that feeling again. The feeling that despite 60 wins in the past six years and just nine losses, they’ve got nothing to show for it.
Asked if another playoff loss would make this season a failure, Powell doesn’t mince words.
“I would like to think so,” he said. “We definitely have the pieces to win it. We’ve been doing everything right — practicing hard, hard work in the weight room — so I would say yeah, it would be a failure.”
• • •
It’s been just over 24 months, and Cameron Denson hasn’t forgotten.
As a sophomore in 2011, Denson made a mistake and it cost him and it cost the Lancers dearly. He threw a punch in the a game against Ironwood Ridge, the team’s regular-season finale, and was forced to sit for the opening round of the state playoffs. But Salpointe was ranked No. 3 and Scottsdale’s Notre Dame Prep was ranked No. 14, so what could go wrong? He’d be back for the quarterfinals, and then it would be his time to make amends.
Only the Lancers were upset 33-14, and Denson never got his chance.
“I remember everything about the game,” Denson said. “Play by play what happened. What went wrong, what they out-executed us on. I remember every detail. I remember every loss. I probably won’t ever forget it … but if we win a state championship, it’ll do a good job of covering it up.”
But the highs of a win are nowhere near the lows of a loss for the ones who sit in their office until 7 p.m., writing out plays and then scribbling them out and then writing them again, the exact same way.
“I don’t think it’s healthy to stew on it,” Bene said. “I think it’s just human nature for those of us who are competitive. And those who have a lot invested. My staff, myself and my players — we’ve got a lot invested into this football program. They’ve run countless sprints, hours and hours in a weight room – when you have that much invested in something, it’s no difference than a small-business owner.
“For me. it hurts because you care.”
You can hear the pain in his voice, and you can hear the exuberance from his players.
“I want it as bad as anything I’ve ever wanted before,” Powell said. “It means everything.”
Added Denson: “I want it more than anything. It’s my biggest goal right now.”
Denson will go on to bigger things — he’s one of two Lancers who have committed to the UA for 2014.
“I go to sleep every night dreaming about it. It’s at the U of A, where I’m committed, and I’d get to play my first game there for a state championship? It would be surreal. I imagine myself dancing. I’ve already imagined what I would do if we win. I might just run on the A and lay there for a minute or two. Hometown stadium, that would be a big deal right there.”
That’s the best-case scenario.
Bene cuts the questioner off before the question has even begun.
“Yeah, if we don’t win it, would it be a failure?,” he said. “That’s the million-dollar question.”
It’s not a failure, Bene said, not with players earning full scholarships and receiving a great education, and with team trips to Los Angeles and Las Vegas — “We have some kids who had never flown in a plane before,” he said — and with friendships being made and forged for life.
“No. It’s not a failure. That would be so unfair to the kids and coaches,” Bene said. “You can’t tell me those life experiences get thrown in the trash because we didn’t win a state championship. I’m not going to buy into that. Is it disappointing? No question. Does it hurt, absolutely.
“But a failure? Absolutely not.”