No sport experiences more change year to year than high school football, and if early results are any indication, Friday’s Valley Vista-Willow Canyon grudge match will provide a clear example of this theory.
In last year’s 8-7 Willow Canyon victory, both teams hugged the ground like a new set of tires. The Surprise rivals combined for 79 rushing attempts, versus 20 passes. On several plays, only one receiver ran a route.
This year, both teams have new starting quarterbacks. And in week one, the coaches had enough faith in them to put the ball up.
“Both teams are taking advantage of personnel this year, and both believe they have the personnel to throw more,” Valley Vista coach Jason Wilke said.
Valley Vista junior Dalvin Richardson connected on seven of 11 attempts in the 47-6 victory over Phoenix Trevor Browne, and he made them count. Five went for touchdowns, with four scores going for 44 yards or more.
Meanwhile, senior Taylor Nezdoba made his varsity debut for the Wildcats, going 9 for 19 for 181 yards in the 28-21 loss to Deer Valley. Nezdoba had two long tosses of his own, a 42-yarder to junior Antony Thompson and a 60-yarder to senior Diantre Harding.
“I think Valley’s kid is a great kid and a good quarterback. They’ve got decent speed at receiver. By looking at them on film, it looked like they wanted to go to the air,” Willow Canyon coach Michael Hudnutt said. “From our standpoint, just to have the ability to throw the ball down the field is going to help our offense in the long run.”
Don’t expect too many empty-backfield sets Friday. These teams still prefer to run. Willow Canyon remains a power I formation team at heart. Valley Vista will line up in the three-back double wing formation about as much as the spread.
But with weapons like Harding and Thompson, and seniors Gio Pascascio and Jonah Seifert, both offenses can diversify.
Though Valley Vista enters with a better record, the Monsoon knows it’s the underdog until it records its first win in this neighborhood struggle. Willow Canyon controlled first three matchups.
In 2010, Valley Vista jumped to an early 7-0 lead, then watched the Wildcats slowly chip away and grab the advantage in the final five minutes. The Monsoon drove the ball into the red zone, but a sack ended their hopes.
The pain of this near miss remains. And the Monsoon must wait an extra hour for a chance at redemption. Kickoff was pushed to 8 p.m. Friday because of the recent extreme high temperatures.
“I’ve been waiting a long time to win against Willow. Playing them the last couple of years on varsity makes me want to beat them even more,” Valley Vista senior center Kyle French said. “The first thing the coaches said this week is that everything has to be perfect. The only reason teams lose is because of mental mistakes.”
Willow Canyon knows the Monsoon will ride a wave of emotion to start on their home field. The Wildcats want to erase their frustration from the opener, when they led Deer Valley 21-14 midway through the fourth quarter.
Eventually, though the game will settle down and will be decided by which team executes its game plan best.
“We try to approach every game as the biggest we’re going to play. I know Valley’s very excited to play us and to get us at their place again this year. It’s important to have a rivalry within the district. I think it’s a great think for our kids, our district and our community,” Hudnutt said. “But it’s the game for this week, and that’s our concern. I tell the kids that if we work hard and do the things we should do, it’s more about worrying about ourselves.”
Both defenses rely more on speed and employ young three-man lines. So the running games could be relied on more than in week one. Thompson gained 120 yards on 24 carries. Valley Vista senior C.J. Palmer picked up 91 yards on seven totes.
The Wildcats want their smaller lineman to provide pressure while linebackers like Austin Desaulniers, Brian Keyes and Tim Tyndall make the bulk of the tackles.
Most of Valley Vista’s defensive attention is focused on its back eight, particularly senior linebacker Jack Hastings and junior defensive backs Jacob Bukowiecki and Myles Spearman. But Wilke was proud of his inexperienced defensive lineman after week one.
“Our five-man rotation in our three-man front were our defensive MVPs,” Wilke said. “There’s some new guys in that group and it was good to see some guys growing in our system. They’re getting up to speed because we want to play a fast defense.”
That said, the coach knows Willow Canyon presents a far greater challenge for his defense — indeed for the whole team — than Trevor Browne. Wilke said the Bruins may not have even completed a pass against Valley Vista. Plus Willow Canyon plays faster across the board than Trevor Browne.
Conversely, Willow Canyon faced a ranked team from Division II and played them to a near-standstill. The Wildcats enter the battle for Surprise with history on their side.
“The entire weekend I thought, ‘I can’t believe we lost a really tough game.’ Having Valley Vista right after that helped me not focus on the loss,” senior left tackle Gabe Swaba said. “It’s an intense game with our rivals, but we always go in feeling confident.”