DIVISION III: Defense lands Mountain View on cusp of title

Mountain View’s football team has relied on a dominant rushing attack to pile up yardage and string together an 11-game winning streak.

But the Saints’ defense had the starring role in last week’s Division III state semifinal win, and it might be the biggest reason that Mountain View has reached a state title game for the second time in three years.

“This is the best our defense has ever been,” said first-year Mountain View coach Mike Valenzuela, a longtime Saints assistant before this season. “Before, we scored a lot of points and would kind of ride with the offense, hoping we can outscore people by 20, 30 points. This year, the kids have had such an intense focus and desire to be good on defense.”

Mountain View (11-1) will meet Pershing County (10-1) in the Division III state final at 3 p.m. Saturday at Bishop Gorman High School.

It’s a rematch of the Class 2A state title game in 2010, when Pershing County used its power running game to rally from a 12-point halftime deficit and win, 14-12.

Mountain View’s Elijah Armstrong played in that game two years ago, and the senior linebacker said returning to the state final against the two-time defending state champion Mustangs is a special opportunity.

“For the guys who did get to play them two years ago, it’s a great thing to be back,” Armstrong said. “It’s really something we strive for to redeem ourselves.”

Last week, the Saints’ defense stiffened with the game on the line, as junior linebacker Noah Van Kempen led a pack of tacklers to stop a Battle Mountain 2-point conversion run with 7:52 remaining to preserve a 7-6 Mountain View victory.

Armstrong has been a key component to a defense that has allowed only 7.7 points per game during the 11-game winning streak, including three shutouts.

“With our ‘D,’ we just try to emphasize doing the right thing, keeping our heads and making sure that we have our assignments,” said Armstrong, who has 55 tackles. “So far, the formula’s been working, and we just have to keep on doing what works.”

Van Kempen (99 tackles) and Dylan Duggan (66 tackles) round out a solid core of linebackers for the Saints, and Adonis Morris (five interceptions) and Nick Jenkins (four interceptions) lead a strong secondary.

Offensively, no one has played a bigger role for the Saints than running back Matthew Larson, the Division III Southern League player of the year. The bruising junior has 1,837 yards and 22 touchdowns rushing. Shifty junior running back Jacob Duldulao has complemented Larson well, rushing for 1,048 yards and 14 TDs.

Time of possession could prove crucial, as Pershing County averages 307.3 yards rushing and relies on a defense that has shut out six foes.

“We know they’re a big team. They’ve got a lot of good players,” Mountain View junior defensive lineman Zach Conover said. “We’re just trying to prepare for a physical game and play every play to the whistle.”

Mountain View went undefeated in Southern League play for the first time since rising to the 11-man level in 2008. But as far as the Saints have come, the program has yet to win a state title.

Saturday’s game gives the Saints a shot at redemption and school history.

“I just want to win it for the seniors,” Conover said. “There’s a lot of pride that you can take in a state championship, but specifically, the seniors really deserve it.”