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High school football: Heading into title game, Damonte has reasons to believe

Mustangs make school history with tonight's title game against Reed

12:00 AM, Nov. 16, 2012 EST

From left, Zack Ewert, Tyrell Smith, Kyle Daugherty and Drew Smith will lead Damonte Ranch into the school's first region championship football game tonight against Reed at Mackay Stadium. / Tim Dunn/RGJ

Wrestling practices at Damonte Ranch started Saturday, and Drew Smith has not attended one.

The defending state champion at 152 pounds didn't quit the sport and he isn't hurt. He's still playing football.

Damonte wresting coach Shawn Reilly hasn't had this problem before. That's because the Mustangs have never before played this deep into the playoffs.

Damonte played its first varsity football season in 2006 and tonight against defending champion Reed will make its first region championship appearance.

"It's definitely tiring, for sure. But it means a lot," Smith said.

"This is actually the start of a new program. To be at the beginning of it is awesome. Hopefully, these juniors remember how this feels, and the sophomores and freshmen that watch us play take to heart what it's like to see us go this far."

Damonte, which opened in 2003, had two playoff appearances in its first six years as a varsity team. The Mustangs already have as many postseason wins this year. They knocked off tradition-laden programs Reno High and McQueen -- after losing to each during the regular season -- to get here.

"In the back of everyone's mind, we knew we could do it. But it was a matter of actually doing it," senior linebacker Zach Ewert said. "They coaches said all year that they believed in us. It was a matter of us believing in us."

Damonte had a sub-.500 record during the regular season and was the Sierra league's third seed. But the Mustangs' run to tonight's Division I North final at Mackay Stadium is not a Cinderella story. The talent was there all along.

"Watch out for Damonte," multiple opposing coaches offered, unsolicited, before the season.

The remarkable thing is who led the Mustangs to this point.

A year ago, Shawn Dupris had only heard of Damonte Ranch as the site of past state championship games. The then-Bonanza coach in Las Vegas was handed the Mustangs' reins in February.

"We tell these guys all the time, 'A year ago, we didn't know any of you. But we're sure glad we do now,'" said Dupris, who succeeded Tony Amantia after nine years. "When we got here, we knew right away that we had athletes and talent. And the big bonus was their knowledge of the game. We knew we could play. But I didn't know where we fit in around here."

The Mustangs (6-5) started the year 2-3 and then won two pivotal league games before they limped into the playoffs with two losses to end the regular season.

"It's definitely been an emotional rollercoaster," Ewert said. "We've kept the right mindset throughout the whole season and have been able to go to that and stay tough. To still be playing, it shows how much we've come together to be a team.

"Being here, it's not just for us. It's for the whole program and hopefully it's just the start of something big. Reed is a great program and hopefully we're starting to be, too. Before, you could walk into the school after we lost and tell. But the last couple weeks, the spirits all around campus have been high. Everyone is enjoying this."

Just getting to this game, Dupris said, will have positive ramifications for the program. The coach, of course, wants to win it, as well. So what would a region title in his first season mean?

"It would mean we get to take on the winner of (Bishop) Gorman and Centennial," Dupris said. "Reed has a good program and we have lots of respect for them. But it sure would be fun to see a Vegas team next week."

Smith has been a big part of the Mustangs' ascension. The senior quarterback-turned-running back eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark last week and has scored 29 of the team's 39 touchdowns. He has all seven of Damonte's offensive touchdowns these playoffs.

But despite the gaudy stats, it wasn't all smooth sailing for Smith.

"Getting used to the new schemes our coaches run was making me nervous," Smith said. "I was wondering when it was going to all come together. The coaches would tell us that we were there, right there, and all we had to do was perfect it. We've been doing that the past couple games."

Smith has touched the ball on 54 percent of Damonte's postseason offensive plays. The Raiders (9-3), in the regional final for the third time in four years, have taken notice.

"They're not going to switch up their offense from a run offense to a pass offense," Reed linebacker Drew Bryant said. "We have to dominate up front to stop it. We just can't let him get outside. That's what they want to do every time."

"I love it when teams try to run against us. It's a challenge," Bryant added. "I would much rather they try to run against us than pass."

Stopping Damonte's run game takes more than just winning the line of scrimmage.

"I like coming up for the tackle and putting my pads into someone," Reed safety Brandon Covello said. "That's what we're going to have to do."




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