Salpointe Catholic is rolling at the best possible time.
The Lancers are fresh off a 42-0 thrashing of Pueblo in the first round of the Class 5A state playoffs. The win was Salpointe’s fifth straight since a close loss to Cienega on Sept. 28. The Lancers are 10-1, and their defense has pitched five shutouts while holding teams to a touchdown or less on three other occasions.
Bene coaches the most dynamic running back in the state in sophomore Bijan Robinson, a player with 1,426 rushing yards and 24 total touchdowns, already with scholarship offers to four Pac-12 college programs.
Still, Bene calls this moment “bittersweet.” The Lancers will look to advance further with a win over Glendale Cactus on Friday night at home.
“I’m happy for everybody, but at the same time you know that if you lose, it’s over,” he said. “The practices end, the time you spend with the kids and the team ends immediately.
“For me, I just get such a great joy out of spending time with these kids that you obviously never want it to end, especially when you have a group of kids like I have.”
It’s true: Salpointe’s run could end tonight, 10 months after the team first gathered for offseason conditioning. Or the Lancers could advance all the way to the Dec. 2 state championship game at Arizona Stadium with a couple more playoff wins.
The Star spoke with Bene this week to preview Friday night’s game against the Colts:
What is it about this defense that it’s been able to perform so well lately?
A: “Our defense has been solid all year. Despite the loss of Gabe Madril, who’s had a tremendous impact and is a difference-making type of player. … I think our kids have a really good grasp of what we want them to do and so then on Friday nights it’s easy to make adjustments because they understand the big picture.”
Who has stood out on defense?
A: “Like every football team, everything starts up front. We’ve had some really good play out of our defensive line. I think our team speed and then our linebackers are really good led by Chris Aguirre, he has 100-plus tackles.
“But I think the back end of our defense is maybe as talented as we’ve had in a long time with Alex Withers, Lathan Ransom and Derrick Bush. Those guys are able to cover, really make it hard on opposing quarterbacks and it allows our D-line and linebackers to get after the quarterback. While it’s a total team effort, I think the fact that the back end of our defense is so solid it’s allowing the front seven to really get after people.”
Cactus has a high-powered offense, led by Damaria Norris, who has rushed for 1,827 yards and 32 touchdowns. What are you expecting in this game?
A: “I mean, I don’t know that I’ve seen a player as complete as Damaria Norris. He’s their do-everything back. He runs it, he catches it, he punts for them. He returns kicks. He’s as good of a football player as I’ve seen in a long time and so when you have such a dominating player like that, obviously we have to stop him and try to contain him and make other guys make plays. He single-handedly one of the best players in the state so extremely impressive and that’s our challenge to shut him down and force other kids on their team to make plays.”
On the other side, you have Bijan Robinson, who’s obviously dynamic too. How has he improved from last season?
A: “He’s grown by leaps and bounds. He’s a totally different kid. I mean, obviously physically he’s bigger, faster, stronger, but I always tell people mentally is where he’s grown the most. He’s maturing, he understands the game better. He’s learning the game. He’s having a super sophomore year and I think combined with Mario, that’s a one-two punch that’s been really successful for us.”
What do you like about this group you’re coaching this season?
A: “They’re just good kids, man. They’re respectful. I think they emulate all that’s good in a student-athlete, they represent our school and they’re fun to be around. We have a very competitive environment, but the kids are good teammates. We stress about a winning culture and I try to share my vision of what a winning culture should be and you want the kids to buy in and these kids have bought in.”