Centennial set for Open Division bracket after big win

The Centennial Coyotes are headed to the playoffs. (Joe McHugh/Staff)

For the better part of four years, the Centennial High School football program has been considered one of the best teams in the West Valley, as they had made the Open Division in both 2019 and 2020.

In 2021, though, the program had a rare subpar season while under Arizona coaching legend Richard Taylor, as the Coyotes fell to a 3-8 record due to various protocol issues.

Now in 2022, Taylor and his team are right back where they were in 2020, as they turned that 3-8 record into an 8-2 regular season, after a dominating win over Phoenix Pinnacle, 45-15. Centennial is now a top-six team in the state, once again vying for a state championship in the Open Division bracket.

“Redemption,” Taylor said on how the turnaround felt.

Centennial’s season thus far has been a dominant one to say the least. They started out 0-1 this year, as they turned the ball over six times to Chandler Hamilton, another 2022 Open Division qualifier, in a 38-14 loss. The Coyotes then burst out with seven straight victories, including rollercoasters over Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor and Gilbert Williams Field.

Led by senior quarterback Steven Urquiza and senior running back Kavaughn Clark, Centennial quickly regained the recognition it had been receiving from other top programs across the Valley.

Its most challenging test of the year came against cross-town rival Liberty — the current No. 15 team in the country according to MaxPreps.

“Centennial has been a great program for many years,” Liberty head coach Colin Thomas said. “We have had many, many battles with them; great football games.”

After falling in a defensive battle against the Lions, 24-14, Centennial was faced with a must-win game against Pinnacle in order to compete at the highest level.

“Attention to detail,” Taylor said about the loss to Liberty. “We can’t be (almost) right. We can’t run our patterns, almost right. We can’t almost block the right guy. We’ve got to be attentive to what we’re supposed to be doing and execute the play in the manner in which it was designed, and the way that we practiced it.”

The Coyotes were in uncertain territory, though, as Urquiza went down with an apparent knee injury late in the Liberty game. On a short week, Urquiza was a game-time decision. To boot, Pinnacle was also vying for an Open Division spot, making this game’s build up as tense as a game Centennial had faced all season.

Upon kickoff at Centennial’s senior night, though, the Coyotes were all business.

Urquiza, to the Coyotes’ benefit, wound up starting the game, and in the first half, all sides of the ball were firing on all cylinders. The offense ripped off a quick 17 points, which included an 89-yard breakaway touchdown from receiver Kenny Worthy III from Urquiza, as well as some power running from Clark. The defense was stout, forcing punts and not giving any big plays up to Pinnacle’s talented pass catchers — Myles Libman, and the No. 1 tight end in the country and No. 34 overall prospect, Duce Robinson.

The Coyotes were even lethal on special teams, as they would receive an 89-yard punt return, almost for a touchdown, from Iverson Small, and they would also go for, and recover a surprise onside kick after going up 17-0.

Following the onside kick, freshman quarterback Kainan Manna would enter the game in relief for Urquiza after it was decided the senior should rest the remainder of the game.

“Our quarterback coach said he needed to watch (Urquiza) all week long,” Taylor said. “He was still hurt and it was affecting his throwing. He’ll start the game because he’s a senior, but if it’s not good, he doesn’t want to put him in a position where he could get hurt.

“‘Sugar’ Kainan came in and did a heck of a job. He has a lot of moxie for a freshman.”

In relief, Manna started off slow, turning the ball over on his first possession, but bounced back on the next opportunity with a 12-yard touchdown pass to Angelo Matamoros to extend the Coyotes lead to 24-0. The half concluded at 24-7, following a score from Pinnacle’s Libman.

The Coyotes’ defense continued its vice grip on Pinnacle in the second half, which allowed the offense to continue pouring it on as Tony Greer would increase the lead to 31-7 after a 26-yard scamper.

Pinnacle would attempt a comeback as running back Jacobie Rucker would power his way into the end zone. A two-point conversion from Robinson left the score 31-15.

The effort turned out to be too little too late, though, as the Coyotes would pile on with another Greer score and an interception returned for a touchdown by Jack Kaimipono Bal. The back-to-back touchdowns left the score at 45-15. The game would end at that same margin.

Following the big win, Centennial gets a bye week, allowing for some much-needed rest, but focus will be essential from here on out. After officially making the Open Division bracket as the No. 6 seed, a matchup with perennial state powerhouse Chandler, the No. 3 seed, is slated for Friday, Nov. 25.

But after the redemption arc, Centennial is capable of competing against any program put in front of them.

“We’ll play wherever they tell us to play,” Taylor said. “We’re not going to cry about it. We’re not going to beg to get out of the (Open). We’re going to play where they tell us to.”