Pinnacle's rise to becoming a 6A contender
Pioneers have given their fans plenty to cheer about; is best yet to come?
WEEKLY BLOG: 3/10/19
Pinnacle finally busted down the quarterfinal barrier in 2018 and reached the 6A semis for the first time in school history last November. A 41-20 victory over Red Mountain marked the Pioneers' inaugural trip to football's final four. A lot of high school fans already knew it before last season started. Others have now taken notice to the fact that Pinnacle has risen to become a legitimate state contender in football.
The first season for the Paradise Valley District school in North Phoenix came in 2000. In 2003, Dana Zupke took over as the school's second head coach - and he's still there. In an age where it seems at least 1/4 of the schools change coaches each year (for various reasons), Zupke ranks second in tenure out of all 37 coaches in 6A (Dan Hinds has been at Desert Vista since '02).
Pinnacle began in the 4A Conference and moved up to 5A in 2007. Enrollment quickly climbed and the Pioneers joined Division I (now 6A) in 2011. The enrollment at the last realignment in October of 2017 was 2,697 students.
The Pioneers reached the playoffs for the first time in 2005. It was the only postseason appearance in Zupke's first four years. But, the administration was patient and PHS is on a current run of 12 straight playoff appearances. Prior to last season, the team was 0-6 in second-round games.
The last two years have been the most successful as Pinnacle is coming off back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time. The Pioneers posted their highest win total with an 11-2 record in 2018.
"I think our success year in and year out is due to culture and consistency," Zupke said in an e-mail interview. "There are expectations in our culture."
Those expectations at Pinnnacle are year-round weightlifting, exhibiting a strong moral character, and having proper parent involvement in the booster group.
For a long time, the North Valley teams had a stigma of never being able to compete with the teams in the East Valley. Zupke said the progression for Pinnacle's rise began during the 2013 and 2014 seasons. In that schedule block, the Pioneers played an ambitious non-region schedule of Red Mountain, Hamilton, Basha, and Mesa Mountain View. Also, in first-round playoff games in those years, the Pioneers topped Mountain View and Highland.
"I think that was when we stopped worrying about who we played and started truly focusing on ourselves," Zupke said. "It marked the first time we walked on the field believing in each other. While we came up short in some of those games, we had a chance to win."
I was in attendance in 2013 and 2014 for the games against Hamilton. The Huskies played for the state championship in each of those seasons, and won the title in 2012. But, the Pioneers gave them all they could handle in a pair of September games. Hamilton won those contests 24-20 and 37-34, respectively.
An excerpt from my recap of the 2013 game at the time was delivered as follows:
The Pioneers may not have earned a win on this night, but they did gain something else. Respect. This wasn't the 2011 Pinnacle team that started 8-0 only to crumble when it met powerhouses Brophy and Desert Vista. Against a defense that many called the best in Hamilton history before the season, Pinnacle found holes in the running game for Josh Hoekstra and Brian Lewerke (66 rushing yards). The offensive line also kept their signal caller upright (1 sack) against a unit that entered the game with 14 QB takedowns the first two weeks.
Zupke went on to say that night: "This group of kids absolutely believe they belong here."
One consistency among the Pioneers has been strong quarterback play. It started with Michael Sanders in 2012, who went on to play at Idaho State and Dixie State. Brian Lewerke, Michigan State's current quarterback, followed him. The past four years have been led by Spencer Rattler. The Oklahoma signee finished his high school career as the state's all-time passing leader with 11,083 yards. He also holds the 6A state record with 116 career touchdown passes.
Because of injury and suspension, JD Johnson was put into action for seven games last season. The junior was 5-1 as a starter and threw for 2,004 yards and 17 TDs. Johnson received offers from seven Division I schools and committed to Michigan in December.
"JD, like the great ones before him, has a tremendous amount of poise on the field," Zupke said. "He has a strong, accurate arm, and he is very smart and very coachable. He is also a very good athlete for his size (6-4, 210)."
Some of the players Zupke expects to be senior leaders on this year's team are offensive tackle Tosh Baker, center Adam Verbalaitis, tight end/defensive end Shane Sunday, safety Clay Zupke, safety Trevor Crawford, wide receiver Marcus Libman, and Johnson.
FAST FACT: Pinnacle junior offensive tackle Tosh Baker (6-8, 265) was named to the All-USA Arizona high school First Team. He got his first offer in October from UCLA and now has 15 total offers (8 from the Pac-12).— Gridiron Arizona (@gridironarizona) December 30, 2018
Since that tweet in December, the offers haven't stopped. Baker is now up to 30, and it's a who's who of college football. The list of teams pursuing him includes Alabama, Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Washington.
There are some takeaways that students get from being coached by Zupke and his staff.
"It's not about you," Zupke said. "The best players play. You will be coached hard. There are high expectations. We care about you."
Last year marked the beginning of showcases during spring football. In these, multiple teams practiced together (but not in drills against one another). This makes it easier for college coaches to travel to one stop and see players from a few different teams all at once. Pinnacle is hosting one on Monday, May 6. Centennial, Paradise Valley, and Brophy will fill out the showcase.
In the past two seasons, Pinnacle has been knocked out of the playoffs by Chandler and Perry. Those are the two schools that have met for the last two championship games. So, it's no surprise what the Pioneers' goal is for 2019.
"The same as it is every year," Zupke said. "Make the playoffs and then win our last game."
The in-state schedule is the same as it was last year (with sites reversed). Pinnacle will face Perry, Mountain Pointe, and Horizon out of the gate. All three were playoff teams last season. In Desert Valley Region play, the Pioneers will finish the regular season with Liberty, Chaparral, and Boulder Creek.
One major difference is with the out-of-state game. Last year, Pinnacle traveled to California to face JSerra. This year, it will be a longer trip. The Pioneers have a bye week on Sept. 13 and then play Eastside Catholic in Sammamish, Wash. (near Seattle) on Sept. 20.
If the name sounds familiar, it's because Eastside was the school that visited Centennial last December for the GEICO Bowl. The Crusaders defeated CeHS 17-0 led by sophomore J.T. Tuimoloau, who had five sacks.