It would have been the storybook ending to a celebrated career.
Coach Dennis Bene’s Salpointe Lancers were playing in the penultimate round on the biggest stage, a possible rematch with a hated rival on the high school football’s newly created biggest stage on the horizon.
Bene’s final trip through the state playoffs mirrored his first one, made 38 years ago. Bene was the Lancers’ backup quarterback, a sophomore, in 1981 when Salpointe made an unlikely run to the final in the state’s highest classification, then called AAA. The Lancers fell short, losing to Phoenix Trevor Browne 20-0 in Arizona Stadium. The Lancers didn’t get another shot at the title for 10 years.
“I’ve spent nearly half my life in the Salpointe football program as a player and a coach and I have been so, so blessed,” Bene, who is retiring, said after the fourth-seeded Lancers fell to No. 1 Chandler 24-16 in the Open Division semifinals on Saturday night. “My path has crossed so many of these incredible young kids and all these coaches, I’ve got absolutely no regrets and I am in a wonderful place. And I was really, really blessed that the school gave me an opportunity.”
Not bad for an undersized QB who set a then-state record 425 passing yards in a game before eventually returning to his alma mater as a coach.
A new era began when Bene was elevated from assistant coach to head coach in 2001. He went 184-44 (.807), winning a state title in 2013, reaching the state final the last two years and putting up 14 regional championship banners.
Bene finished his Lancers career as the winningest coach in school history. He has set a new standard at the 70-year-old parochial school, particularly in the last several years. Along the way, the Lancers developed a nemesis in Scottsdale Saguaro, which ended Salpointe’s season three years in a row (2016-18). Had Salpointe won on Saturday, Bene would have gotten one last shot at the Sabercats. Saguaro won the other Open Division semifinal on Saturday night, topping Chandler Hamilton.
“I just hope people realize how hard our kids played,” Bene said. “A 4A (school) going against the 6A three-time defending champ. It was a damn good football game. I’m really proud of our kids.”
Texas-bound running back Bijan Robinson broke Arizona big-school rushing and scoring records in the last three seasons. He leaves Salpointe with a state-record 114 touchdowns, having rushed for more than 2,000 yards in three different seasons.
“He is special,” Bene said. “His best qualities are off the football field. A tremendous kid, very humble, grounded in his faith. He’s a kid of incredible integrity, morals. He is very, very special.”
While Robinson and several others graduate this year, Salpointe returns a player — quarterback Treyson Bourguet — who could be among the state’s top players next year.
“Coach Bene had a big impact on me, not just in football but outside of football,” Bourguet said after Saturday’s loss. “He’ll always be there for me, and I just want to thank him for everything.”
You could see Bene’s impact on the team through the tears after Saturday’s loss. Following the usual post-game address Bene hugged just about every player on the squad.
He may not have regrets, but there was a wistfulness in Bene’s voice after his team sung the school fight song to fans after the game — a tradition at Salpointe.
“You learn so much from these young kids — so many of them have affected my life in a positive way,” he said. “So many coaches who have in the program for so long, have worked so hard, have given so much of their lives. I feel very blessed for being a part of it. The school, the community, it’s been a heck of a ride. I couldn’t have been more happy to have been a part of it.”