No. 10 Desert Ridge at No. 7 Chandler
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Chandler High School (350 N. Arizona Ave., Chandler)
Records: Desert Ridge 7-3, Chandler 7-3.
Chandler coach Jim Ewan studies tape of Desert Ridge and then goes out to practice, and it’s hard to tell the difference.
“It’s almost like watching the same school,” he said. “We’re very similar in how we approach everything.”
As No. 7 Chandler prepares to host No. 10 Desert Ridge in the first round of the 5A-I state tournament on Friday, it’s not just the offensive and defensive schemes that are comparable.
Both teams have a glut of playmakers as well as offenses that can put up points in a hurry. A bad draw has these two teams facing off in the first round, although both have the talent to advance much further.
Desert Ridge began the year 2-3, but reeled off five straight victories to end the season and claim the 5A East Valley Region title. The Jaguars have improved as the year has gone on, but they must play this game without quarterback Parker Rasmussen, who likely won’t be back until the state semifinals because of a knee injury, if Desert Ridge makes it that far.
The transition to backup quarterback Jordan Becerra was a smooth one last week, as he ran for 169 of Desert Ridge’s 360 rushing yards in a 45-7 blowout win over Perry. Becerra was a dangerous option at receiver the past two seasons, but now is taking over in a wildcat offense during Rasmussen’s absence.
“I’m not going to blow smoke and say we’re a better team without Parker, but we’re a more dangerous team with Becerra back there,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “We’re a better running team now.”
Chandler also lost three games this season — to Hamilton, Centennial and Desert Vista.
The Wolves didn’t have quarterback Brett Hundley against the Thunder because of a sprained ankle, but he played early in the season finale against Trevor Browne and looked good, Ewan said.
Hundley may be the biggest difference in this one, as he has amassed 2,082 yards passing with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions, as well as 765 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground this year.
“He’s the X-factor,” Hathcock said. “He’s on a different level than anybody.”
Hamilton had the most success curtailing Hundley in the regular season, but Hathcock said copying that game plan isn’t feasible because of Hamilton’s extraordinary depth and talent. Instead, he’s got a different plan.
“We’ll just put 12 people on the field,” Hathcock joked. “We’ll run a guy in from our sidelines when he runs our way.”
Hundley’s the most pivotal player in the game, but Chandler’s defense is also starting to get healthy. The Wolves have been susceptible to giving up big plays and a lot of points, but starting linebackers Cody Bradford and Tyler Holmes and cornerback Devin Centers could all be back for this game, which could shore up deficient areas.
The return of those three defenders, along with running back Aaron Mayo last week, makes Chandler tougher to beat. And that’s important, because Ewan plans to retire after this season, meaning any loss would be his last.
“Yes, I do (think about it),” Ewan said. “There’s no nice way to say no. Once your season ends every year it’s so quick, so I’m aware of it. I’m not trying to put any more pressure on our kids than they’re feeling. Hopefully we’re still practicing in December, because that means things are going well.”