As another football season gets underway, local teams are aimed at playoff berths and improved play as realignment makes for some intense competition between area teams.
Peoria Liberty moves to 6A, joining Mountain Ridge among the top division in the Arizona Interscholastic Association. As the only two teams in the top division, they will face each other in week six for the first time.
Apollo and Ironwood join the Northwest Section while Independence remains in the Desert West Section this year. Deer Valley (West Valley), which drops down from 5A this year, and Glendale (Black Canyon) could each surprise in 4A with realignment helping both.
Here are capsules on the local teams:
Coach: Joseph Ortiz (first year as Cactus head coach)
2017 record: 13-1-0 (3-1-0 in West Valley Section, Lost quarterfinals 4A playoffs)
2018 section: West Valley Section 4A
Key losses: Mahal Lee (QB), Scott Jones (DT,/DE), Damaria Norris (RB)
Key returning players: Zach Cullup (WR), Conner Cordts (QB), Anthony Flores (RB), Matthew Herrera (MLB), Rylee Williams (DB), Nico Quinones (SS)
Outlook: After 34 years, a different head coach will be on the sidelines for the Cobras as Larry Fetkenhier is replaced by Ortiz.
Ortiz said he plans to run a fast-paced offense and defense and attack the ball defensively to take advantage of team speed.
“We are fast and quick to the ball,” Ortiz said. “We are instilling character from top to bottom, and it is all about the kids and giving them a preferred experience.”
Replacing Norris will be the key to the offense after he rushed for 1,966 yards and 34 touchdowns last year. The Cobras also have to replace quarterback Lee, who combined for 1,188 yards (898 passing, 290 rushing) and 15 touchdowns.
The Cobras will be stacked at wide receiver with transfer students Plas Johnson (Kellis) and Riley Davies (Centennial), joining Cullup to give quarterback Cordts a variety of receivers.
“(Cordts) has a strong arm and is very athletic, along with being a 4.0 student,” Ortiz said. “(Flores) at running back is fast and explosive and (Cullop) has great hands and incredible leaping ability.”
Prediction: When you replace a coaching legend, things can be tough, but Ortiz seems to be instilling even more respect and character in the athletes at Cactus. The preseason is winnable, so when the Cobras begin play in the West Valley section, they should be strong on both sides of the ball. They will battle cross-town rival Peoria and a section title should come down to the final game when the two meet at Peoria High School on Oct. 26.
Coach: Richard Taylor (27th year as Centennial head coach)
2017 record: 9-3-0 (3-1-0 in Northwest Section, won 5A state title)
2018 section: Northwest Section 5A
Key losses: Zidane Thomas (RB), Ruben Beltran (QB), Dominique Hampton (CB/WR), Alex Escobar (RB/SS), Jordan Ware (OLB/SS)
Key returning players: Carson Keltner (C/G), Jeiel Stark (WR/CB), Kieran Clark (CB/WR), Eric Cire Fields II (FS/WR)
Outlook: As Taylor begins his 27th season as head coach of the Coyotes, he has quietly built one of the top programs in the nation and will defend another state title. Over the past 13 seasons, the Coyotes have won six titles and been runner-up four times and made the playoffs for 16 consecutive seasons.
While they may struggle early trying to replace running back Thomas, who rushed for 2,123 yards and 26 touchdowns last season, transfer Tawee Walker, who rushed for 1,554 yards and 18 touchdowns last season for Mohave High School in Las Vegas, is expected to take over.
“We have high expectations this season,” Taylor said. “Our goal is to teach the young men how to be leaders in the community and reach our goals.”
Taylor will run multiple offensive formations and the defense will focus on a 4-3, with experience being Centennial’s strength.
Jaydin Young (97 tackles), Fields (51), Clark and Stark return to lead a defense that allowed 29 sacks and 10.3 points per game last season.
Prediction: The Coyotes will battle in the new Northwest with games against Apollo, Ironwood, Kellis, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain. The Coyotes should still have the talent to win the section and should be battling for another state title this season.
Coach: Stephen Hogg (first year as Kellis head coach)
2017 record: 7-3-0 (2-3-0 in 5A Metro Section, DNQ)
2018 section: Northwest Section 5A
Key losses: Dylan Naylor (WR/FS), Xavier Silva (CB), Isaiah Diaz (FS), Avery Reynolds (DE), Zeph Clark (OL/DL), Manny Gonzalez (OL), Quentin Estice (CB/RB), Nick Bejarano (LB)
Key returning players: Angel Martinez (OL), Josh Mendivil (DL/OL), Elijah Juarez (RB), Cade Peterson (QB), Ricky Luna (WR), Adrian Gaines (DE)
Outlook: Hogg takes over for Shawn Copeland who turned the Cougars around from a winless team in 2014 to nine wins in 2016. Hogg says he will use a spread zone offense to focus on his team’s speed and experience.
Peterson returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,161 yards and 24 touchdowns, while adding 372 yards rushing. Juarez, who led the team with 644 yards rushing last season, returns to lead the running game while Estice will get some carries.
Hogg points to Chase Weaver as a possible breakout player after getting limited playing time last season.
“He has shown a lot of potential as a sophomore but didn’t fit the system very well last year,” Hogg said. “Now, he is poised to be a standout on both offense and defense.”
Hogg said the goal for this year is simple, “to use football as a tool to help shape these guys into better men down the road. Hopefully, they will look back on their experience and know that because of it, they are now better husbands, fathers, workers and citizens.”
Prediction: The Cougars return a strong core and first year coach Hogg inherits talent to make a run at a playoff spot. Peterson has the ability to be one of the top quarterbacks in the valley and, combined with Juarez, Luna and Estice will showcase a potent offense. They may struggle in the Northwest but should battle Sunrise Mountain, Centennial and Glendale Apollo for a playoff spot.
Coach: Will Babb (seventh year as Peoria head coach)
2017 record: 8-4-0 (1-3-0 in West Valley Section, lost quarterfinals 4A playoffs)
2018 section: West Valley Section 4A
Key losses: Nate Dobson (QB), Sonatane Zabala (RB), Elijah Neal (WR/DB), Aaron Owsiany (SS/WR), Austin Enteman (ILB), Sebastian Delgadillo (DT/OG)
Key returning players: Juwann Price (RB), Jacob Golden (OT/DT), Kahlil Muhammad (CB), Malachi Potee (FS/RB), John Jones (LB/RB), Jarom Wallace (OL), Shane Marshall (DE/OG), Remigio Cordero (DB), Cameron Torres (WR/QB)
Outlook: After opening last season winning their first five games, the Panthers struggled in section play, losing three games before winning their final two to make the playoffs.
This season, Babb said they have to take care of the ball and he plans on using an attacking defense with multiple set offenses to shake things up.
“Our philosophy is to handle our business and not worry about what others are doing or bragging about,” Babb said. “We want them to maximize themselves, and everything will take care of itself on the field.”
The Panthers are young, but Babb hopes their early games will give them the experience heading into the West Valley games.
Prediction: The Panthers open the season with tough battles against Buckeye Youngker and Buckeye and may struggle early. They have winnable games against Mohave and San Tan Valley Poston Butte before section play begins. The Panthers should improve during the preseason and battle for the West Valley title with the final game against cross-town rival Cactus possibly being for the section title.
Coach: Mark Smith (fourth year as Liberty head coach)
2017 record: 11-2-0 (4-0-0 in Northwest Section, lost semifinals 5A playoffs)
2018 section: Desert Valley 6A
Key losses: Ryan Bendle (QB), Greg Tremble (WR), Dylen Bieber (WR), John Clark (DL), Cole Luster (MLB)
Key returning players: Jett Kinsch (RB), Jace Accurso (RB), Jonah Guevara (QB), Jake Robinson (WR), Ryan Pitts (LB), Anthony Poras (DB), Zack Hunzinger (OL)
Outlook: As the Lions move up to 6A this season, they have a strong returning squad that should help them compete in the top division for the first time in school history.
Kinsch returns after rushing for 559 yards and seven touchdowns last season. Guevara and newcomers Brock Mast and Michael Chavarria will battle for the quarterback job.
Prediction: They jump to the 6A, Desert Valley sections to battle Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthem Boulder Creek, Scottsdale Chaparral, Phoenix Pinnacle and Glendale Mountain Ridge.
The Lions should be one of the top teams in the Desert Valley and should battle for a title in their first season in 6A.
SUNRISE MOUNTAIN MUSTANGS
Coach: Steve Decker (third year as Sunrise Mountain head coach)
2017 record: 11-2-0 (4-0-0 in West Valley Section, lost semifinals 4A playoffs)
2018 section: Northwest 5A
Key losses: Dylan Carioscia (OLB), Derrick Bangle (RB/CB), Angel Ruiz (WR), Bobby Ramirez (SS), Brody Webb (MLB/OLB), Gavin Chaddock (MLB/WR)
Key returning players: Keegan Freid (QB/WR), Drake Flores (RB), Bo Moore (MLB), Hunter Olson (MLB/DE), James Hansen (WR), Jay Anderson (WR/FS)
Outlook: The Mustangs, after being one of the top 4A teams the past few years, move up to 5A with eyes on continuing their success at a higher level for the first time in school history.
Sunrise Mountain returns starting quarterback Freid, who has committed to the Air Force, who led the team into the semifinals for the first time in school history in 2017.
The Mustangs must replace one of the top wide receivers in the state after Ruiz walked on at Arizona State. They return just one starting offensive lineman and lack experience at key positions. Illinois transfer Blake Hill has been working at wide receiver and Decker knows his team will have to focus on its speed.
“We are a fast temp team and are going to run the spread offense,” Decker said. “We have a multi-fronts and a multi-coverage defense that is a gap control and very aggressive.
Some of the key players on defense will be Olson (64 tackles, three sacks), linebacker Moore (43 tackles, five sacks), and Anderson, who will play free safety.
“We are a young team so really getting into the play book and understanding the full philosophy of our offense and defense will benefit us greatly,” Decker said. “Our goal is to make the playoffs and then be healthy going into the playoffs to make a deep run.”
Prediction: The Lions will have a tough test to start their move to 5A facing Phoenix Central before their first tough test against Gilbert Williams Field. They then face cross-town rival Liberty, keeping the annual battle on their schedule before winnable games against Gilbert and Buckeye Verrado before they start their section games.
They will face tough tests against Centennial and Kellis, but should be battling for a section title and a playoff berth in one of the toughest sections in the Valley.