Tempe Marcos de Niza yearns to sidestep the stumbling block that has plagued its ascent to the top of 5A Division II as the prep football season opens for many schools on Friday.
That stumbling block is reaching the 5A-II title game. The last two seasons Avondale Westview has prevented Roy Lopez and his Padres from getting to the final game in December. In 2007 Westview eliminated Marcos 36-34 in the quarterfinals. Last year Westview prevailed 14-7 in the semifinals. If there ever was a year the Padres could strike mid-December pay dirt, this seems to be the one.
Marcos de Niza has more returning starters than average. The schedule, on paper, is light as a feather. The question is, will the Padres be lulled to sleep come postseason by a slate that doesn't include a who's who of top-notch programs.
"We never underestimate other teams," Lopez said. "The teams in our region are just as good some of the other teams in other regions. We've played schools like Desert Ridge, Mountain Pointe and Westwood. They have more kids than we do. We put it on ourselves and don't go into games looking past them."
Nine of Marcos de Niza's 10 opponents this year who played in a conference last season combined for a 44-55 record last season. Newcomer Gilbert Perry is taking a huge step from independent to 5A-II, so its 7-3 record last year is misleading. Competition won't stop Marcos from reaching the title game, Lopez argues. What the Padres do on the field will determine that.
"We're extremely excited about the season ahead," Lopez said. "The last couple of years we've been one or two plays away from playing in the championship game."
With so many returning players who nearly got to play in a title game last year, Lopez said the key to getting over that hump is simple.
"We have to be more disciplined, more hungry and take each game as it comes," Lopez said.
5A-I preseason rankings
1. Hamilton: With the usual core of good athletes in tow for a shot at a repeat, will the gradual improvement and maturity week to week last season be the rule again?
2. Red Mountain: Mountain Lions weren't terribly ferocious last year but reached the state semifinals anyway. With more depth, the defense must step up to keep them among the elite.
3. Brophy: Running game and defense should be solid again. Will the Broncos' passing game be enough to keep opposition honest? If so they will contend again.
4. Chandler: Beating the elite - Hamilton, Brophy, Desert Vista, Mountain View - at playoff time is the only blemish on the Wolves' impressive resume. Chandler has only one playoff win over those four in the last six years.
5. Mountain View: Offense might be better than last year, but the Toros must replace their entire defensive unit. A tougher schedule top to bottom will make that task a bit tougher in the new Central.
5A-II preseason rankings
1. Centennial: QB Dain McFarland and RB Anthony Hughes lead a powerful offense and senior-loaded squad.
2. Westview: Played Centennial close twice but lost in title tilt; returns dual-threat QB Jourdon Grandon.
3. Marcos de Niza: Legitimate state title contender with a stacked offense returning, plus transfer Anthony Shivers (McClintock).
4. Millennium: RB/DB Marquis Flowers has offers from USC and several other Pac-10 schools, and QB Mike Massey (2,272 yards, 17 TD, 4 int) is back.
5. Chaparral: Move up from 4A-I but still considered favorites in the new Desert Valley Region.
ONES TO WATCH
Max Leonesio: Brophy, RB, 5-11, 190, Sr.: The leading rusher in all of 5A last season (2,081 yards) who scored 25 touchdowns, he's got plenty of speed to get outside and surprising strength running between the tackles. Odds are he'll end up at an Ivy League school.
Dwayne Garrett: Chaparral, RB, 6-0, 185, Sr.: The main cog in a three-person backfield that returns from last season, Garrett nearly eclipsed 2,000 yards for a whopping 8.3 yards per carry to go with 27 touchdowns. Garrett, Cole Tyree and Dayne Kamela will need to come up big to help new sophomore quarterback Connor Brewer.
Devon Carrington: Hamilton, DB, 6-2, 193, Sr.: The next in a line of top defensive backs, Carrington had 77 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and two blocked field goals as a junior. Already possessing excellent coverage and tackling abilities, his 6-foot-2 frame makes it difficult to throw around or over him. He's committed to Stanford.
Derek Molina: Red Mountain, RB, 5-10, 180, Sr.: Powerfully built, Molina carried the Mountain Lions at times with final totals of 1,592 yards, 11 touchdowns and 6.6 yards per carry. He was exceptional during the Lions' run to the 5A-I state semifinals with 445 yards in three playoff games (10.8 yards per carry).
Josh Fulton: St. Mary's, TE/DL, 6-4, 235, Sr.: Oft-forgotten because the Knights are in rebuilding mode, but Fulton has been a two-way starter for three of his four years in high school. This is looking like the best of Fulton's four teams, which will only enhance his abilities to accompany his size and agility as the Knights reach for the playoffs before Fulton heads to Arizona State next fall.
Ramon Abreu: Marcos de Niza, RB-LB, 5-10, 184, Sr.: A two-way talent, and the Padres won't let that ability slip away resting him on the sidelines. Registered 139 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks and piled up 1,214 yards rushing and receiving a year ago with 17 touchdowns. With a good defensive line in front of him, Abreu won't have to stray far to make tackles and attack. With versatile offense, Abreu can't be keyed upon either.
Michael Lange: Corona del Sol, RB, 5-11, 190, Sr.: Can look forward to another workhorse year for Lang, who rushed for 1,418 yards and 20 touchdowns. Lang rushed for 100 yards or more in eight of the team's 12 games and barely missed the century mark in another. He averaged nearly 20 carries per game.
Jacom Brimhall: Mountain View, RB, 5-6, 170, Sr.: The smallest of the outstanding stable of running backs in these parts this year, but brings excitement, toughness and speed on some amazing runs. Rushed for 1,607 yards last year, averaging 124 per game. Averaged 14 rushes per game, which tended to keep him fresher than most of the big-yardage backs.
Jesse Brantley: Gilbert, WR, 6-2, 185, Sr.: Not the leader in receptions a year ago by a long shot, Brantley's forte was the bomb. Last year he averaged 28.8 yards per reception (920 yards on 32 receptions) and 11 TDs. If the Tigers can manage a running game, Brantley may be just as dangerous this season.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Mike Benjamin, Basha, QB, 6-0, 175, Sr.; Justin Gardner, Basha, OL, 6-2, 250, Sr.; Max Eller, Brophy, WR, 6-2, 195, Sr.; Hank Jenkins, Brophy, OL, 6-0, 265, Sr.; Ross Luther, Brophy, DB, 5-10, 185, Sr.; A.J. Steimel, Brophy, TE, 6-4, 250, Sr.; Taylor Walstad, Chandler, RB, 5-11, 205, Sr.; William Poehls, Chandler, OL, 6-6, 290, Sr.; Declan Wall, Chandler, LB, 6-3, 195, Sr.; Jeremy Morris, Chandler, DB, 5-10, 175, Sr.; Kyle Yount, Chandler, QB, 6-2, 180, Sr.; Chris Fox, Chaparral, LB, 6-3, 230, Jr.; Chris Arnold, Chaparral, TE/LB, 6-0, 200, Sr.; Cole Tyree, Chaparral, RB, 5-10, 165, Sr.; Brendan Murphy, Chaparral, DB, 5-10, 175, Sr.; Kyle Benson, Corona del Sol, LB, 6-3, 210, Sr.; Alan Stitt, Corona del Sol, LB, 5-10, 185, Sr.; Chase Cartwright, Corona del Sol, QB, 6-3, 205, Sr.; Dekota D'angelo, Desert Mountain, WR, 6-0, 180, Sr.; Kevin Radcliffe, Desert Mountain, QB, 6-1, 185, Sr.; Charlie Andrews, Desert Mountain, TE/DL, 6-4, 235, Sr.; Tyeler Davison, Desert Mountain, OL/DL, 6-3, 280, Sr.; Kevin Pantastico, Desert Ridge, QB, 6-1, 170, Sr.; Sam Papa, Desert Ridge, LB, 6-3, 215, Jr.; Anders Battle, Desert Vista, RB/DB, 6-0, 175, Sr.; Ryne Rezac, Desert Vista, WR/DB, 5-8, 165, Sr.; Cody Sokol, Desert Vista, QB, 6-3, 200, Sr.; Anthony Kereluk, Desert Vista, LB, 6-0, 212, Sr.; Mike Flaster, Desert Vista, OL/DL, 6-2, 230, Sr.; Kristian Cheek, Dobson, T-DE, 6-4, 200, Sr.; Marcus Good, Dobson, SS, 6-1, 170, Sr.; Alex Ennis, Dobson, OL-DL, Sr.; Nathaniel Causey, Gilbert, TE-LB, 6-3, 215, Jr.; Brandon Bialkowski, Gilbert, QB, 6-0, 160, Sr.; Travis Dean, Hamilton, QB, 6-0, 185, Sr.; Zach Bauman, Hamilton, RB, 5-11, 193, Sr.; Cedric Parker, Hamilton, DB, 6-0, 172, Jr.; Tevin Hood, Hamilton, DL, 6-1, 275, Sr.; Tyler Rutt, Hamilton, LB, 6-0, 192, Jr.; Ryan Stanford, Horizon, QB, 6-1, 165, Jr.; Reese Kanter, Horizon, RB/DB, 5-11, 170, Sr.; Shem Casey, Horizon, DB/WR, 5-10, 160, Sr.; Matt Colucci, Horizon, LB/WR, 5-11, 180, Jr.; Justin Rodriguez, Marcos de Niza, WR, 6-3, 188, Sr.; Zach Schira, Marcos de Niza, QB, 6-3, 190, Sr.; Anthony Shivers, Marcos de Niza, RB, S, 6-0, 177, Jr.; Aaron Pavlenko, Marcos de Niza, DL, 5-11, 220, Sr.; Roy Garcia, Marcos de Niza, 6-3, 235, Sr.; Kyler Fackrell, Mesa, QB/DB, 6-4, 195, Sr.; DeVontae Kellybrew, Mesa, FB/LB, 5-11, 205, Sr.; Kolter Anderson, Mesa, TE/LB, 6-3, 210, Sr.; Jaymen Green, Mesa, RB/DB, 5-8, 155, Sr.; C.J. Randall, Mesquite, DL, 6-6, 220, Sr.; Maka Taufa, Mesquite, LB, 5-10, 220, Sr.; Jamison Ellis, Highland, WR-DB, 6-0, 175, Jr.; Brad Heap, Mtn. View, QB, 6-3, 215, Sr.; Joey Leal, Mtn. Pointe, LB, 6-1, 220, Sr.; Alex Lewis, Mtn. Pointe, 6-5, 250, Sr.; Chase Richardson, Perry, QB-LB-TE, 6-1, 195, Sr.; Tauren Darnell, Perry, RB, 5-11, 165, Jr.; Dillon Luther, Pinnacle, WR/DB, 5-11, 175, Sr.; Andrew Hurley, Pinnacle, TE/LB, 6-2, 207, Sr.; Alex Cappellini, Pinnacle, QB/DB, 6-3, 195, Sr.; Alex Zemezonak, Pinnacle, WR/DB, 5-7, 155, Sr.; Jake Phipps, Red Mountain, DL, 6-1, 235, Sr.; John O'Connor, Red Mountain, QB, 6-1, 180, Sr.; R.J. McGill, St. Mary's, RB/DB, 5-10, 175, Sr.; Bryan Holland, St. Mary's, QB, 6-1, 180, So.; Brennan Franklin, St. Mary's, LB/TE, 6-1, 210, So.; John Holtz, Westwood, OL-DL, 6-1, 225, Sr.; Joe Rodriguez, Westwood, LB, 5-9, 190, Sr.
5A-I Central Region
Teams (last year’s record): Basha (6-5), Corona del Sol (9-3), Dobson (5-6), Gilbert (7-4), Highland (7-5), Mesquite (2-8), Mountain View (12-1)
Outlook: New region alignment features five teams that qualified for the playoffs last year, including Corona del Sol and Mountain View. Corona appear to have the most firepower back led by running back Michael Lang, quarterback Chase Cartwright and a couple of linemen up front. Aztecs also have core defenders back with Kyle Benson and Alan Stitt. Mountain View’s question is rebuilding a strong defense from a year ago all across the board (no starters return). The Toros' offense is led by 1,000-yard rusher Jacom Brimhall and quarterback Brad Heap, who could be primed for a big year in his first full shot behind center. The Toros' offense may need to be prolific early on. Highland needs to retool up front on both sides of the ball. That was the team’s strength a year ago. Coach Pete Wahlheim likes his skill position players, although most are untested under the Friday night lights. Basha’s edge is its offensive line, where an ample supply of starters and quality depth reside. Quarterback Mike Benjamin will be operating for his third year but needs a receiving corps to develop. The Bears might be lacking a breakaway back this year. On paper Gilbert might be the region’s top passing team, led by quarterback Brandon Bialkowski and receivers Jesse Brantley, Brandon Christie and Dominique Long. Little experience returns on defense, which was led by the graduated Drew Swartz. Mesquite’s fortunes rest in keeping walking-wounded from last year healthy. Coach Mike Reardon likes his first unit, but a lack of depth and understandable paranoia of injury from last year could be a factor as season progresses.
What’s new: Dobson unveils coach Alex Jacobson, a transplant from prep coaching ranks in Utah. The Mustangs are installing a passing offense to differ drastically from Dobson offenses of the past. It will be challenging as well due to Dobson’s toughest schedule in years from start to finish. Dan Dunn returns to Gilbert as coach after a nearly three-decade hiatus. Dunn brings polished credentials to the job, including some state titles in the 1970s. Gilbert has become a viable playoff team for the past decade.
5A Desert Valley Region
Teams (last year’s record): Chaparral (12-2), Desert Mountain (5-5), Horizon (1-9), North Canyon (8-3), Pinnacle (5-6), St. Mary’s (3-7)
Outlook: With dominant Phoenix Brophy off to the Fiesta Region, one would think the Desert Valley becomes a little more competitive. It might, but Scottsdale Chaparral is probably the favorite going in, even though the Firebirds are moving up from 4A-I. The Firebirds will have a sophomore starting at quarterback but have plenty of top talent returning at the other skill positions. Desert Mountain’s time has arrived to make noise in the region race and get into the playoffs in Tony Tabor’s fourth season at the helm, especially since they were one hand’s worth of power points away from sneaking in last year. The Wolves, Pinnacle and North Canyon won’t be separated by much (if anything) in the standings, and with St. Mary’s closing the gap under Eddy Zubey, the second half of the playoff positioning is going to be tense. The Knights might be a year or two away from the playoffs, but they can improve on last year’s 3-7 team with a little better health. Horizon has one direction to go, and it’s likely the Huskies will ascend as they return practically everyone and increased their roster size.
What’s new: Desert Mountain and St. Mary’s are the two leftovers from the previous version of the Desert Valley, though it’s not altogether new because Horizon and Chaparral were in this region years ago in a different era, though more recently Tony Tabor (Desert Mountain), Charlie Ragle (Chaparral) and Dana Zupke (Pinnacle) previously spent time coaching with one another as assistants.
5A East Valley Region
Teams (last year’s record): Casa Grande (3-7), Desert Ridge (8-4), Marcos de Niza (11-2), Mountain Pointe (2-8), Perry (7-3), Skyline (8-4), Westwood (2-9)
Outlook: The last time Marcos de Niza was housed in a predominantly 5A-I region (2005 and 2006) as a 5A-II school -- wins were hard to come by against 5A-I foes. Now as bona fide 5A-II team, the 5A-I competition the Padres face in their region is more to their liking. The ultra-experienced Padres -- more than half their starters return on offense and defense -- are loaded for a big year. Linebacker-running back Ramon Abreu, one of the state’s top two-way players, leads the way. The rest of the region falls well short of Marcos in terms of experience and star power. Desert Ridge has quarterback Kevin Pantastico, who passed for 2,800 yards in the Jaguars' airborne offense. He could move to receiver and catch passes from New York transfer Ryan McCann if coach Jeremy Hathcock opts to use McCann behind center. The Jaguars have their fastest and toughest defense in Hathcock’s tenure, but the unit’s experience is an early question mark. Skyline, which along with Desert Ridge is moving up to 5A-I, lost a good corps of seniors and 2,000-yards-plus in rushing to graduation. In addition, a tougher schedule will keep the Coyotes hopping all year. Westwood doesn’t have much to show for its 2-9 season last year in terms of experience. Good or bad the Warriors are starting over and don’t know what to expect. A decidedly lighter region schedule might help the team improve on last year’s record.
Perry, with starting quarterback David Walker already sidelined for at least six weeks with a broken foot, brings an experienced team back virtually intact otherwise. The trouble is, the level of play Perry competed at last year was more the speed of junior varsity action than varsity. Coach Preston Jones likes his inaugural schedule, which features several established yet struggling programs. Winning a region game this year might prove tricky.
What’s new: Mountain Pointe has brought in Georgia and Wickenburg transplant Norris Vaughan to turn the program around. The Pride might be the team that falls in behind Marcos in the region standings at season’s end. The new region opponents are favorable to them, but making the 5A-I playoffs with their nonregion slate might be tough in Vaughan’s first year. Keith Brown, who coached state title teams at Phoenix Christian and most recently piloted Horizon in the early portion of this decade, is back coaching in Arizona at Casa Grande.
5A-I Fiesta Region
Teams (last year’s record): Brophy (11-4), Chandler (8-4), Desert Vista (8-3), Hamilton (13-1), Mesa (6-5), Red Mountain (7-6)
Outlook: Yikes. At least four of these teams should make the playoffs, but given the schedule they’ll all face, all six will probably deserve to go, even if that’s not going to happen. In addition to playing half the schedule against this gauntlet of a region, Brophy, Chandler and Red Mountain also play 5A-II powerhouse Centennial, while the Mountain Lions also have nonconference tilt against Corona del Sol. Defending 5A-I champion Hamilton is probably the team to beat in this region, mostly because it has split with Brophy recently and has had success against the rest. Brophy must break in a new quarterback and seven starting spots on defense which hadn’t changed the previous two seasons. Chandler’s optimism is roaring because of its returning core and the most depth of any Jim Ewan-coached team. Desert Vista could sneak up on a few teams if the Thunder can stay healthy, but the Thunder lack depth. Pity Red Mountain and Mesa for their schedules. Hamilton and Brophy have combined to win the past six state championships, with Desert Vista having made a state title game appearance in 2007 and Chandler also capable, so it’s easy to imagine one or both championship game teams emerging from this region.
What’s new: Outside the team changes to the region and its likely effect on the rest of the 5A-I playoff picture, not much. Chandler and Hamilton are the only holdovers from the previous installments of the Fiesta, while Brophy, Hamilton and Red Mountain will have new signal-callers under center.
Aug. 28: Mountain Pointe at Dobson: Battle of first-year coaches - Norris Vaughan and Alex Jacobson, respectively, - as teams set their sights on restoring winning seasons and consistent playoff participation. In the last three years the teams have made one playoff appearance combined.
Sept. 4: Centennial at Chandler: This is the first meeting between these two schools and should provide an exhibition of some of the top talent in the state at a variety of positions. The Coyotes won in Nevada on Aug. 22 - their 27th consecutive win dating back nearly two years to this date - and will be coming off a bye. Can the Wolves avoid turnovers and let their defense keep up?
Sept. 11: Mountain View at Chaparral: Forget that it's 5A-I against 5A-II. Given the recent successes of these two programs, it just sounds like an interesting matchup. Chaparral has the size and speed advantage, but the Toros have never been intimidated by anyone else's attributes, and watching Jacom Brimhall and Dwayne Garrett run is worth more than the price of admission.
Oct. 23: Desert Mountain at Pinnacle: With both teams expecting themselves to compete for the Desert Valley Region title, this one should be a biggie on that front and for 5A-II playoffs positioning. The Pioneers feel they're better than 2008 when they lost three games by a touchdown or less. The Wolves feel this is their year to break through in the fourth year of Tony Tabor's program-turnaround project.
Oct. 23: Hamilton at Brophy: Another matchup of the past six state title winners. Brophy won in the 2007 semifinals while Hamilton narrowly won twice last year including the championship game. It's fast replacing Chandler-Hamilton as a top rivalry, mostly because these games have been close calls the past few years.
Nov. 6: Desert Vista at Red Mountain: If the schools are still physically able to field teams after nine brutal weeks of games, this one could be for a playoff spot. The teams last met in the mud at Chandler High in the 2007 semifinals, with the Thunder prevailing.