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Photo by Mark Jones

Steve Belles, left, and Norris Vaughan share a mutual respect and a sense of humor. But they can't share a state title, so one will beat the other in Saturday's Division I title game.

Steve Belles and Norris Vaughan could take their tongue-in-cheek back-and-forth on the road.

They became fast friends over the years, despite their battles on the field as two of Arizona's best big-school programs over the past five seasons, and like all buddies bust each other's chops.

It was on full display Wednesday at the annual state championship press conferences before they were going on stage just four days before their two power programs – Belles' Hamilton (Chandler) squad (11-2) and Vaughan's Mountain Pointe (Phoenix) group (13-0) - face off in the Division I state title game Saturday at University of Phoenix Stadium.

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Photo by Mark Jones

Antonio Hinojosa, Mountain Pointe

While waiting their turn to spew good tidings about their teams and their opponents before the big game, Belles would say something, Vaughan would laugh and slap his counterpart on his back. But the real action began once they made it to the podium.

Belles, who is attempting to win his sixth state title and the school's eighth, said while fighting back a smirk that the Huskies were going "to do the best we can" against a team that hasn't had a close game, and at that point Vaughan stumbled and laughed as if he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Then when Vaughan, who has led the Pride to four semifinal and two title-game appearances in five years, got his chance he opened with trying to beat a team that has "won 15 state titles in 14 years somehow."

As insightful as it was into their personalities, the show on Saturday will be a display of their coaching chops. The programs are playing for the sixth time since 2010, including last year's championship game that Hamilton won 31-16.

The players and talent levels change each year, but the men who instilled the discipline and principles that guide the program and make the calls on game days are the same.

"You know mentally they are going to be sharp," said Belles, who owns a 3-2 record against Vaughan. "You're not going to out-scheme them. You are hoping to make them work, do something they are not prepared for and it's effective."

Vaughan, who is looking for his first state title in 29 years, 20 of which came in Georgia, isn't surprised to come across third-seeded Hamilton one more time.

"I figured we would be," he said. "And here we are. They still have the most talent in the state. I'm not saying we don't have talent, but they are here year-in and year-out."

Mountain Pointe has had the more explosive offense – 631 points behind quarterback Antonio Hinojosa (31 touchdowns, four interceptions), wide receiver Jalen Brown (50 catches, 18 touchdowns) and three-headed running game – while two of the state's top defenses will be featured.

Photo by Mark Jones

Qualen Cunningham, Hamilton

"They come at you so many ways," senior cornerback Levi Sterling said. "They have three big receivers and a good quarterback. We have our work cut out for us."

Much of the hype before the season, when Hamilton was nationally ranked higher than Mountain Pointe, was about how the Huskies defense could be the best the state has ever seen because of players like Qualen Cunningham and Sterling.

The Pride may have unseat them after allowing a total of 20 points all season in the first and third quarters combined behind linemen like Charlie Trevino and Mitchell Fraboni, linebacker Wesley Payne and cornerback Timmy Hernandez.

While the championship ring designer has the Hamilton players on file, the Pride are trying to earn the first ring in school history after being painstakingly close last season.

"They came into the season with a purpose," Belles said. "They are one game away from it and hopefully we can be the one team that prevents them from getting that goal.

"It's going to take a whole team effort. We are not going to fool ourselves."

Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothill News staff writer, is a 19-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at jskoda1024@aol.com or 480-272-2449.

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