Jake Swartwood has a lot of respect for St. Johns football coach Mike Morgan.
He’s not alone.
Morgan enters tonight’s homecoming game at Payson No. 4 on the state’s career wins list at 290-71-4. The 32-year head coach is 238-50-2 in 25 seasons at the Redskins’ helm after starting his career in Ganado. He has guided St. Johns to six state championships.
Swartwood was a senior on Payson’s 2002 team that opened the season with a 20-16 win over the Redskins. St. Johns didn’t lose another game all season, racking up 12 consecutive victories to claim the Class 2A crown.
The Longhorns’ win that season snapped a three-game losing streak against Morgan’s Redskins from 1999-2001.
“St. Johns is coached by one of the best coaches in Arizona football history,” said Payson’s second-year head coach. “He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame. He’s forgotten more about football than I know.”
So Swartwood is looking forward to coaching against Morgan.
“I’m excited to coach against somebody like that,” he said. “I played against St. Johns and I looked up to Coach Morgan when I was a player, just because of what he’s built and the dynasty he has. You don’t talk about Arizona football without mentioning his name. So, it’s a privilege to take the field with him and get to coach against him.”
It’s the first meeting between the teams since Payson beat the visiting Redskins 26-21 in 2010 to avenge a 19-7 loss at St. Johns the previous season. The teams don’t meet regularly because they’ve normally played in different divisions or classes — St. Johns in Class 2A and now Division V and Payson in Class 3A and now Division IV.
The Redskins enter the game 4-0 and need to go 14-0 this season for Morgan to become the fifth coach in state history to win 300 games as an Arizona high school varsity football head coach.
The Longhorns want to end any hope of him reaching that plateau this year.
They’ll reach the halfway point in the regular season at either 4-1 or 3-2. And, with five Division IV Section V games remaining, Swartwood realizes how important a victory tonight could be in his team’s goal of reaching the playoffs. The second-half schedule will be tougher than the first half as the Horns play next week at 2-2 Fountain Hills and end with a three-week gauntlet of Snowflake (4-0), Blue Ridge (3-1) and Show Low, which is 2-2 but has lost to two bigger powers. Swartwood referred to that trio as Murderers’ Row in addressing his team recently.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association realignment has Payson in the same section with Blue Ridge, Show Low and Snowflake for the first time since those schools were all part of the 3A East. Globe joins those four and Fountain Hills in the section. The Horns play host to the 1-3 Tigers in two weeks.
But first it’s the Redskins. And Swartwood expects them to offer multiple challenges.
“They’re going to run two different defenses,” Swartwood said. “They’ll run an odd-man front and they’ll run an even-man front. So we’re preparing for both of those this week. Offensively, we’re going to see some of the wing-T stuff that we’ve seen in previous weeks and also some jumbo sets, wishbone sets that we haven’t seen.”
He said his players have the added distractions that come with homecoming.
“I think, overall, we’re pretty prepared for this week,” Swartwood said. “We’re excited and the boys are very focused, even with it being homecoming. And they’re ready to put another W up on the board, hopefully.”
He said he wants his players to enjoy Saturday night’s homecoming dance. And it’ll be hard to do that if they don’t get by St. Johns.
“The dance sucks if you lose the game,” the coach said. “And the whole week’s kind of a loss then. And we can’t afford to lose any games. So this is a game we’ve got to fight for and win. It’s a game we feel we are capable of winning.”
The Longhorns will likely need a strong defensive effort against a St. Johns team featuring 6-foot-4-inch receiver Jake Zieler, 6-3 receiver Dayton Waite and six other senior leaders.
“We look for our cornerbacks Dean Harpe, Bowen Sweeney and Jesse Barry to have good games against St. Johns,” Swartwood said. “St. Johns has got a couple of big receivers that are very capable of high-pointing the ball and making some big plays. So those guys are going to have to be on top of their game and they’re ready for the challenge.”
The Horns’ defense has performed well in all areas most of the season.
“The defense has stepped up tremendously,” Swartwood said. “We’ve got a defense that swarms 11 men to the football. And that’s kind of been missing the last couple of years here. We might have had gang tackling and have three or four guys there, but it’s hard to watch our videos and not see eight guys in the frame every time around the ball carrier. And that’s exciting for me as a defensive coach, especially. I like to see that.”
Seniors Jesus Apodaca and Steve Perry and sophomore Tito Vega have rotated in the interior defensive line. Senior Noah Wood missed last week’s 20-7 win over Glendale. But classmate Dakota Harold is expected to play this week for the first time this season.
“He’s been a staple in the interior and at linebacker,’ Swartwood said of Harold. “He’s just a kid you can plug in anywhere. So we’re excited to have him back.”
Seniors William Youngberg and Jake Ames have been leaders at linebacker, although Ames has also played well when switching to nose guard.
Sophomore Brian Skinner has also played a key role at linebacker. “He has been one of our most solid defenders we’ve had,” Swartwood said of Skinner. “We know what we’re going to get from him week in and week out and that’s a pretty stellar performance.”
Senior Tyus Sarnowski “has done great,” at safety, according to the coach.
St. Johns’ defense, meanwhile, will be trying to contain a PHS offense that’s been explosive at times this season. Quarterback Miguel Mendoza, Sarnowski at wide receiver and sophomore tailback Wyatt Chapman have led the way.
“We’re producing a lot of touchdowns and a lot of yards,” Swartwood said. “And, so far, we’ve shown a pretty balanced attack from all areas. So I don’t think teams can focus in on one thing to stop.”
Harold’s return should bolster the offensive line. He was scheduled to be the team’s starting center entering the season, but shin splints and an ankle injury have sidelined him until now.
“Getting him back is going to be helpful for us,” Swartwood said.
The teams have one common opponent. Payson won 42-10 at Page in week two and St. Johns beat Page 35-14 last week at St. Johns.
As much as he respects Morgan, Swartwood would love nothing more than to beat him as a coach just as he helped the Longhorns do in his final season as a defensive end-wide receiver back in 2002.
Perhaps PHS would actually be helping the Redskins by beating them. Coaches always say you learn more from a loss than from a win. St. Johns certainly did pretty well for itself after that loss 11 years ago.