Five days ago in this space, we declared an end to the high school football hype and a beginning to the real thing.
Of course, only one team played last weekend (Hamilton), but with roughly two-thirds of the East Valley putting on pads for the real thing Friday night, we figured this was our best (and last) chance to throw some educated guesses against the proverbial wall and, in three or four months, see what stuck.
There are many more than 10 burning questions this season, so consider this a season-opening appetizer:
1. Who has the best chance to beat Hamilton?
The easy answer is Chandler (Oct. 1 at Chandler) given the Wolves’ stable of athletes and QB Brett Hundley’s ability to dictate the offense. But Chandler will have to stop a relentless running game up front, and they’ve struggled to do that against Hamilton.
Brophy would be the other because the Broncos are excited about their young talent and they have the coaching acumen to build up their kids. Even if that happens, however, it will still be tough because the Huskies can win in several ways. Most everyone else will need to play a perfect game and have the Huskies make oodles of mistakes to have a chance.
2. What about that other 5A Chandler school?
Basha has undergone a transformation beginning with hiring Bernie Busken, but the Bears still have athletes and will be well-coached. Don’t expect much dropoff. In fact, Basha could do one better if its offensive and defensive lines grow and they find stability at quarterback.
Several good players were lost to graduation and a couple others moved after the coaching change. But most remained, and there’s no reason to believe they can’t contend for the Central Region title.
3. Can Williams Field keep it up?
The Black Hawks began last season 9-0 in its first year of varsity competition, but dropped its final two games — including the 4A-I state tournament opener — to end the season on a down note. But with some key skill players coming back on offense, Williams Field has a chance to keep itself among the top-tier 4A-II schools in a very short time period. The East Sky Region won’t be easy this year, and with the loss of several key defensive players, it will be a challenge, but one worth watching.
4. Can Desert Ridge join the 5A-I elite?
The Jaguars have been a joy to watch since Jeremy Hathcock took over the program, but it hasn’t translated to much postseason success. Defense has been the problem, but Desert Ridge brings back 10 starters on that side of the ball, as well as several key skill guys on offense. The Jaguars have been dismissed in the past as an exciting team that can’t get it done against the state’s elite, but they look to change that this year.
5. What should we expect from the changes at Red Mountain and Corona del Sol?
Those schools could face a little steeper transformation under Ron Wisniewski (Red Mountain) and Zane Zamenski (Corona del Sol).
Wisniewski likes his team’s depth, and while there may not be any stud BCS-bound athletes this year, the collection of college-caliber players is substantial, especially at wide receiver. Quarterback and running back positions better work itself out through the first three or four games before the Fiesta bloodbath begins.
Zamenski’s summer has been well-documented, but the Aztecs can surprise teams if they stay healthy and find stability at quarterback. Both lines should be pretty good, and they’re excited about Dominic Mercurio as a focal point of the offense (more on him below).
6. Will the East Valley take back Class 4A?
Saguaro, Notre Dame and Cactus Shadows had a tight hold on the 4A state titles for the past few years, but Tucson Canyon del Oro and Glendale Cactus took the hardware out of the East Valley last season.
This year, the Sabercats bring back the majority of their impact players and have an eye on a fourth state title in five tries in 4A-I. Notre Dame will be in the hunt again in 4A-II, as will Williams Field, but Cactus and Canyon del Oro are still the early favorites.
7. Which 2009 Cinderella team will have the most successful encore?
Mesa, Mountain Pointe, Williams Field and Cactus Shadows all surpassed preseason expectations by a long shot. Each have new challenges, but the Pride look to have the personnel to prove this was not a one-year wonder. Coach Norris Vaughan has reinvigorated the program, and while the Ahwatukee school has always gotten premiere athletes, the Pride are now playing to their full potential. Mountain Pointe is on the short list of contenders to advance to the state championship game.
8. Which four under-the-radar-players will become household names by November?
Hamilton linebacker Tucker Dunn already had his coming-out party in the season opener against Bishop Gorman. The Huskies are stacked with several potential Division I athletes, but it was Dunn who made the biggest impression early on.
Saguaro safety John Lindemann is a late bloomer who didn’t make a huge impact last season, but because of an impressive spring football performance, holds collegiate offers to Idaho and New Mexico State. Lindmemann is big and fast, not a guy you want to go over the middle against if you are a wide receiver.
Mercurio (Corona del Sol) came up from junior varsity late last season and impressed. With good speed, a solid line in front of him and questions at quarterback, expect the 5-foot-11, 185-poound junior to get the ball early and often.
Red Mountain defensive back Jacob Tune was solid in the secondary last season, leading the team with five interceptions and registering 47 solo tackles. In a region with standout quarterbacks Brett Hundley and Kyren Poe, he will have plenty of chances to make plays.
9. Who will be this year’s Mesa or Mountain Pointe?
That’s almost impossible to figure out, since nobody thought Mesa would win a Fiesta Region game or Mountain Pointe would win three games all season, so we’ll scale it back a bit this season. That said, Westwood lost three games last year by a touchdown or less and a collection of talented skill position players return in QB Juan Zazueta, RB Valencio Gray and WR Billy Sueing. The question is whether the Warriors completely new O-line can block up front. Honorable Mentions: Desert Vista, Perry, Pinnacle, St. Mary’s.
10. Will we miss the region format when it disappears after this season?
Depends. Especially when the road to a state title is arduous for most, region championships mean a lot to a lot of schools. And the new conference alignments and reductions offer no guarantees that the Mesa or Gilbert schools will all play one another. Then again, plenty won’t like their position within the new conference alignments, and, at the highest levels, it’s not as if anyone’s schedule will become significantly easier.