Monday’s 5A-II title game showdown between Centennial and Scottsdale Chaparral is a marquee matchup more than a year in the making — since Sept. 11, 2009 to be exact.
That’s the night Chaparral arrived in 5A-II as a fully formed contender — trouncing Mesa Mountain View 42-10. Centennial was the three-time defending state champion, and Valley high school football fans started to speculate about how the Firebirds would fare against the Coyotes.
Fifteen months later, Chaparral (13-0) and Centennial (12-1) finally face off at 8:10 p.m. Monday at University of Phoenix Stadium, and the anticipation remains thick.
“I suppose this was the game everybody wanted to see and understandably so,” Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle said at Tuesday’s 5A media day. “As much respect as they have for us, we have for them.”
The winding path both teams has taken since September 2009 have produced a role reversal.
Last season, these squads entered the playoffs as the top two seeds, fueling the fire for the finals. Tempe Marcos de Niza pulled one of the biggest upsets in recent memory in the semifinal against Centennial.
One week later, the Firebirds played turnover-free football to beat Marcos de Niza 34-21 for the 5A-II title.
With returning players like junior quarterback Connor Brewer, senior safety Colby Targun, senior linebacker Hunter Gregg and senior offensive tackle Andre Yruretagonyena, Chaparral was well-positioned to defend its crown. The transfers of juniors Davonte Neal (a wide receiver/cornerback from Laveen Cesar Chavez) and Lucas Petrullo (a tailback from Scottsdale Saguaro) raised the Firebirds to juggernaut status.
“Every phase of their game is complete. There’s no glaring weakness,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “That’s what you should expect in a championship game.”
Chaparral stormed through its first 12 games, demolishing opponents by an average score of 54-7. Their dominance was so complete that who would win a hypothetical matchup between Chaparral and Chandler Hamilton became a hotter topic than if both teams would defend their state titles.
That game can only be played on the Internet. The live contest on Monday is compelling enough for the AIA and Fox Sports Arizona to switch the start times with the Hamilton-Mesa Desert Ridge 5A-I title game.
“The media and fans like to speculate, they like to talk,” senior center/defensive end Jake Abbott said. “For us as a team, it makes no difference who we’re playing. We don’t want to let the brotherhood we’ve bled and sweat with down. We want to play for these coaches that have worked so hard, and this community. It doesn’t necessarily matter who we play, we’re just excited for the opportunity.”
Taylor said this Chaparral team is comparable to the 2007 and 2008 Hamilton squads in terms of size, speed, depth and versatility. Offensively, the Firebirds resembled the multifaceted Tucson Ironwood Ridge team Centennial faced in the semifinals, only a little better at everything.
Brewer is considered Arizona’s top junior quarterback, passing for 2,558 yards and 36 touchdowns against five interceptions. He spreads the ball to seniors Alex Holmes (35 catches for 679 yards) and Jordie Hein (30 catches for 521 yards).
The Firebirds are similarly balanced on the ground with Petrullo (1,079 yards and 19 touchdowns), senior Kyle Brown (629 yards on 57 carries) and junior Zach Skeen (536 yards). Yruretagonyena, an Oregon signee, and his similarly large mates pave the way.
The size and skill of the Firebirds’ line makes Abbott more likely to concentrate on defensive responsibilities, as he was against Ironwood Ridge. Junior center Luke Parker will handle most of the snaps, as he has in several big games this season.
Neal puts Chaparral over the top, as a threat to score in all three phases of football. He makes big plays at wide receiver (34 catches for 869 yards and 11 touchdowns), as a runner on reverses and out of the Wildcat formation (522 yards and 11 touchdowns on 50 carries) cornerback (six interceptions and two touchdowns) and punt returner (four touchdowns).
He was recently named Gatorade player of the year for Arizona. Monday, Neal figures to match up often with Centennial’s all-purpose equivalent, Gary Ross.
Both players proved crucial for advancing past the semifinals.
Neal rushed for three touchdowns and caught another as Chaparral survived its first test, a 42-29 semifinal win against Avondale Westview. Ross caught six passes for 172 yards and two touchdowns, and added another on a 30-yard interception return in Centennial’s 38-28 win against Ironwood Ridge.
“They could get to know each other really well. They’re both competitors. Gary knows what a challenge it’s going to be,” Taylor said. “The Neal that we saw last year was not healthy. He’s healthy now, he’s a year older and a year smarter. They use him all over the field.”
Ross and fellow playmakers Vegas Johnson, Jalen Ortiz and Zach Hoffpauir will try to break loose against a defense with speed across the board.
Westview was the first team to move the ball against the Firebirds defense, but the Knights wing-T attack is far different than Centennial’s spread offense, so there’s not much the Coyotes can glean from that game.
Chaparral’s back seven, with Gregg, Combs, Targun and Neal, gets most of the attention, the quickness extends to the defensive front.
“They fly to the ball. Their ends are very, very fast and very disciplined too,” Abbott said.
The Coyotes can keep up, though. Taylor has said on more than one occasion that this is his fastest team in 20 years at Centennial, and the season statistics bear him out.
Centennial had scored 16 touchdowns from 40 or more yards out this season, with several of those big plays coming defensively and in the return game.
The pieces are in place for the game on the field to match the pregame hype. Both teams are full of spreed and skill, and the senior leaders on both squads are used to winning against tough opponents.
“These guys have been with me since the inception, and they’re a combined 43-2 at Chaparral,” Ragle said. “We’re going to try and finish against a very good opponent. But I’m super proud of these young men and the commitment they’ve shown to Chaparral football.”
Centennial wasn’t as much of the sure thing as Chaparral, especially after a midseason upset by Mesa Red Mountain. Since then, though, this group has performed well against the best of 5A-II — beating Westview, Marcos de Niza and Ironwood Ridge — to earn their shot at the defending champs.
“All areas of our game have improved so much since the beginning of the season,” Taylor said. “Have we improved enough to beat them? I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out come Monday.”