Deer Valley and Willow Canyon ended the 2010 football season with what amounted to an elimination game for a 5A-II playoff spot, and the Skyhawks won 24-21 by scoring in the last two minutes.
This year, the same two teams open the season on the same field (Willow Canyon’s) with many of the same top players. Because both teams return so many starters, expectations are higher at both schools.
The Wildcats and the Skyhawks want to do more than scrape into the playoffs this year in the new Division II. And both squads point to tonight’s 7 p.m. opener as a catalyst for a breakthrough season.
“(The kids) know it’s very important and have a lot of respect for Willow Canyon,” said Deer Valley coach Joe Kersting. “The players want to do something special this year and they’ve practiced very well this offseason to give themselves an opportunity.”
Deer Valley is rich in returnees, particularly on offense. Quarterback Auston Hillman (1,702 yards passing, 610 yards rushing and 18 total touchdowns), tailback Trae Armstrong (1,521 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns), wide receiver Jacques Bruce (17 yards per catch and seven touchdowns) and tackle Stephen Arnold provide the Skyhawks with more firepower than all but a handful of teams.
Although Willow Canyon is very familiar with those weapons, coach Michael Hudnutt said preparing for a team without current game film is always tricky.
“They’ve got some great athletes coming back,” Hudnutt said. “We know them pretty well, but any year you’ve got some uncertainty going into game one.”
The good news for Willow Canyon is its strength, at least early in the season, should be defense. Five key starters return and are spread throughout the Wildcats’ 3-4.
Junior nose tackle Adonis Hernandez, senior linebacker Austin Desaulniers, junior linebacker Brian Keyes, senior safety Streeter Turner and junior cornerback Gaetano Florio are proven, disruptive playmakers.
“We have a good core coming back,” Hudnutt said.
Deer Valley’s defense and Willow Canyon’s offense have more to prove in 2011, but both are brimming with potential.
All-region linebacker Jon Reed and cornerback Kenny Bowden are back for the Skyhawks, as are five other defensive starters.
Willow Canyon loses leading all-time rusher Garrick Shelton, but junior Antony Thompson filled in for an injured Shelton late last season, rolling up 394 of his 678 yards against Boulder Creek and Deer Valley. Senior receiver Diandre Harding and Turner are big play threats.
During Hudnutt’s tenure, the Wildcats have been known for their hard-nosed offensive line — led by senior Gabe Swaba this year — and physical fullbacks and tight ends.
“I expect them to be a very physical team like they always are,” Kersting said.
In recent weeks, Kersting may have found more help in matching Willow Canyon in the trenches. Three offensive linemen returned, and senior Michael Archebique and junior Wyatt Smilie played well enough to join them.
“Those are two guys that we weren’t sure about in the offseason, but they’ve stepped up and earned starting positions,” Kersting said.
Hudnutt’s also happy about how his major position battle resolved itself. Senior quarterback Taylor Nezdoba, back at Willow Canyon after playing for Goodyear Millennium in 2010, held off sophomore Tristen Madden for the starting nod.
But Hudnutt said he was impressed with how both have played and believes the position has gone from question mark to strength.
With these teams appearing to be evenly matched again and familiar with each other, execution will be the key. Both coaches stressed the importance of forgetting about last year and not becoming overwhelmed by opening game emotions.
“We need to worry about ourselves,” Hudnutt said. “Your actions determine your result.”