After a delayed beginning of the season due to the pandemic, the AIA football season kicks off Friday, Oct. 2.
This weekend’s lineup is highlighted by a battle of champions in Peoria.
Chandler High at Liberty
Liberty shocked the high school football world in 2019 when it ran through the playoffs and was crowned 6A football champion. Liberty hosts Chandler High, last year’s Open Division Champions, in Peoria. Former defensive coordinator Colin Thomas is the new head coach.
The Lions graduated a team-high 40 seniors and took on former coordinator Colin Thomas as coach but retained a pair of defensive leaders in junior safety Jax Stam (105 tackles) and senior Shane Pitts (68 tackles, 4 interceptions). Sophomore running back Zaccheus Cooper rushed for 669 yards in just seven games last season and should handle more of the offensive load in 2020.
“We’ve got a target on our backs after winning last year, but I think we’re ready for it,” Pitts said.
Sunrise Mountain at Cactus
It’s a battle of Peoria Unified School District rivals as 5A Sunrise Mountain heads to 4A Cactus. The Mustangs have the largest senior class in coach Steve Decker’s short tenure with Sunrise Mountain and were the only Arizona team to defeat Williams field—which claimed the 5A championship—in 2019. Cactus was a failed two-point conversion away from reaching the 4A championship last season.
Senior Tommy Arnold is Sunrise Mountain’s top returning tackler (69) from last season and added eight touchdowns as a running back. Senior Ezekiel Marshall caught 25 passes for 556 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019.
“In the past, our offense couldn’t always do it and the defense had to stick in. But this year they’re going to be surprised that the offense can score a lot and the defense can get stops, so we’re going to be tough,” Arnold said.
The Cobra defense is led by senior Riley Davies, who recorded 75 tackles and 6.5 sacks in 2019. Senior receiver duo Antonio Pratt and Justin Gomez combined for over 900 yards and nine touchdowns as juniors.
Mountain Ridge at Mesa Skyline
One of the state’s surprise teams, Glendale Mountain Ridge, went 5-5 in last year’s regular season after a 0-10 season in 2018. The Mountain Lions visit Skyline after beating the Coyotes 34-21 to open 2019 and begin a three-game win streak.
Mountain Ridge’s defense is led by a pair of senior defensive backs—Albin Arulanandu and Dylan Johns—who each recorded three interceptions in 2019. It graduated many of its top offensive weapons, but senior receiver cole Mitchell recorded 379 yards and two scores through the air.
Centennial at Chandler Hamilton
Centennial travels east to face Hamilton in a rematch of last season’s Open Division quarterfinals. Hamilton won the 2019 contest 28-19, and both teams look to make a run to the playoffs again.
Senior DJ Gleash recorded 14.5 sacks and blocked two punts in 2019. Running back duo senior Daxon Lindholm and junior James Scott combined for nearly 1,000 rushing yards and nine scores, with both expected to take more responsibility in this year’s offense.
Moon Valley at Greenway
Two 4A teams play in a rivalry match week one. Greenway went 9-2 last season, led by running back Christian Johnson with 1,693 yards and 21 rushing touchdowns.
Surprise Paradise Honors at Cortez
Both 3A teams sport new coaches. Josh Goodloe takes over visiting Paradise Honors, while Dan Hopper is challenged with leading a Cortez team that went 0-10 in 2019.
Apollo at Sunnyslope
Apollo visits fellow Glendale Union High School District rival to open 2020. Sam Jacobs is Sunnyslope’s new coach, after Damon Pieri led the Vikings to a 6-5 record and 5A playoff berth last season.