The ball climbed higher and higher, like the moon blotting out the sun, a total eclipse.
And then it rained down, flipping over in the crisp air, tumbling down like a discarded piece of an old satellite crashing to Earth.
The ball zigged and Carter Clarke zagged.
The ball zagged and he zigged.
Cienega High School’s offensive tackle and defensive end had the fate of the Bobcats resting squarely on his hulking shoulders in Tuesday’s practice.
With his team hurtling forward toward the playoffs, full steam ahead, Cienega coach Pat Nugent decided they needed a little fun. When you’re 10-0 and have won 23 straight regular-season games but the neighbors to the north loom as large as that falling football, you do what you can to ease the monotony.
So to determine how much conditioning the team would do on Tuesday, he decided that the offensive linemen would try to catch punts. One catch, one less sprint.
It … well, it didn’t end up so good.
Fourteen attempts, three catches. Not the Bobcats’ best showing.
“I came in pretty cocky,” said Clarke, who could not corral the ball. “Like, ‘I got you guys. It’s no big deal.’ Jumping in from offensive line, from being in the trenches to looking up into the sky, it’s like night and day.”
Speaking of coming in cocky, the Bobcats enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the lofty Class 5A, so you’d think they’d have the swagger of a young James Dean mixed with an old Robert Redford.
Yet the chip on Cienega’s shoulder is the size of a large boulder.
It’s hard to be cocky when you know the big, bad boys of Phoenix view you not so much as Bobcats but as kittens with a ball of yarn.
What’s 23 straight regular-season wins against primarily Tucson opponents? A feat, yes, but without a ring to show for it, slightly hollow.
The Bobcats, who open the playoffs on Friday against visiting Laveen Fairfax, know the stakes. Take a program that has been on the doorstep for a decade to the mountaintop.
“You see all these regional banners, and there are a thousand things we’ve accomplished,” defensive coordinator Brett Darling said. “The one thing we don’t have is a championship. We can say, ‘Guys, you can do something that’s never been done at one of the best schools in Southern Arizona.’”
When you’re talking about motivating 17-year-old boys, whose attentions are tougher to wrangle in than one of those punted footballs, that kind of angle is worth its weight in gold.
Add in a healthy dose of disrespect, and you can understand why the Bobcats’ minds are rapt right now.
“The kids we’re dealing with are different these days,” Nugent said. “Motivation is really something you’ve got to work on daily. Look, we may not be the best team. We have to play the best to get what we want.”
In a word, respect.
But respect is earned.
Nugent knows it most of all.
The former Flowing Wells and Canyon del Oro head coach has been to the state title game twice and lost twice. Cienega was the top seed in its class last year but fell to Peoria Centennial, 56-20, in a state semifinal game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated.
Cienega took the top seed this season only because of surprising losses by both Centennial and Queen Creek, though Nugent believes the team had a good shot for the No. 2 spot anyway.
The No. 1 seed does have its advantages.
The Bobcats will have the opportunity to stay in Southern Arizona for the duration of the playoffs, up to and including the championship game at Arizona Stadium. Plus, Centennial is on the other side of the bracket.
Nugent eagerly awaits a potential showdown.
“Centennial is going to an angry big boy right now,” he said. “They’re a still powerhouse. Two weeks ago, the No. 17 team in the nation. Let’s not kid ourselves, Centennial is probably the favorite.”
As the great Ric Flair said: To be the man, you’ve got to beat the man.
This much Nugent knows.
Two years ago, the Bobcats were 4-6 in Nugent’s first season at the helm.
He inherited the program from coaching legend Nemer Hassey, who had guided Cienega since its inception and won 116 games in 13 years. After a five-year stint at Pima College, Nugent took his lumps that year, calling it, “one step backward.”
“It wasn’t a bad team, but we couldn’t find a way to win,” Nugent said.
Enter Jamarye Joiner.
The former Salpointe Catholic quarterback enrolled at Cienega before last season and has been a star in the making.
The dual-threat quarterback has averaged more than 250 yards from scrimmage this season, with 92 rushing yards per game, while totaling 38 touchdowns, 22 passing and 16 rushing. Better yet, he’s thrown just six interceptions.
Better, better yet? He’s helped Cienega’s defense grow leaps and bounds.
“If someone trips and falls on JJ, I’m never coaching football again,” Darling said. “Everyone thinks about his legs — he’s got a great arm. He can put a ball on a dime. That’s where we’ve improved, on pass defense. Jamarye putting balls through windows, he makes our defense better. He has just been so incredible.”
Ask the Cienega coaches about the punt drill, and they laugh.
Imagine a bunch of chubby Chicken Littles scrambling around as the sky falls.
That was the kind of levity the Bobcats needed before what is sure to be an intense next few weeks.
Nugent resisted any impulse to change anything else up. Sprints have also turned into relay races late in the year, but not much else.
“We talk about our routine every day, and when you go 10-0, you want that process to work every week,” he said. “The same practice schedule, the same times. If we had some losses in there, maybe we shake things up.”
That consistency has paid dividends, Clarke said.
“The season is coming to an end, it’s postseason football and we just want to make the atmosphere like nothing is different,” he said. “We’re going in as the No. 1 seed and I think our coaches don’t want to scare the guys too much. We want to maintain what we have, keep it regular. We don’t want to hype it up too much.”
Tell that to the 56 other Bobcats who all hooted and hollered for Clarke and his fellow linemen on Tuesday, begging them to catch the punts, each one shaving a sprint off the list. Two kids were even given the chance of erasing all of them. Couldn’t do it.
“Oh, my God, it was one of the worst groups we’ve ever had,” Nugent said, giggling.
“It’s so fun to watch it,” Darling said. “The poor kids have almost no chance. The way coach Nugent does it, now you’ve got 57 guys screaming for the kid to catch it. They know if he catches it, it’s a miracle.”
Question is, do the Bobcats have another miracle in them?