Players to Watch
Reggie Blader, Sr., RB/DB, Perry: The numbers last year weren’t eye-popping (253 yards rushing, 127 yards receiving, 25 tackles, four interceptions), but he could be “the man” this year for the Pumas. The graduation of QB Josh Uhlorn leaves gaping holes in the Pumas’ offense and defense, and Blader being one of the few returning skill position players, the 6-foot, 180-pounder could be the guy to receive most of that attention. Good thing he’s strong and speedy.
Kyle Gladstone, Sr., WR, Cactus Shadows: Gladstone seemed well on his way to a breakout campaign as a junior, catching six passes for 90 yards and a touchdown in the season opener against Boulder Creek last year. However, he tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the contest and was sidelined for the rest of the season. Gladstone is back and should put up big numbers, especially with third-year starting quarterback Bryce Kinsler getting him the ball. Cactus Shadows likes to throw, and Gladstone should be the big beneficiary this season.
Mauriece Lee, Sr., RB/DB, Marcos de Niza: Another in a stable’s worth of speedsters at Marcos, Lee showed his promise in flashes last year at tailback while splitting carries. He rushed for 722 yards (a whopping 8.7 yards per carry) and 12 touchdowns, and caught 22 passes for 405 yards and three more TDs. He might have to split some time in the backfield because Marcos has athletes, but with his speed and elusiveness, why?
Grant Martinez, Sr., TE, Notre Dame: Nick Duckworth is taking over for Jordan Gehrke at quarterback, and he will have a go-to option in Martinez, an Arizona State commitment. Martinez caught 36 passes for 411 yards and six touchdowns a season ago, and at 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, he has the size to be an excellent blocker as well.
Jake Roh, Sr., WR/LB, Chaparral: The Firebirds don’t have many returning starters from last year’s title team, but Roh is one, and the most important. He should be the team’s leading receiver and is also a solid linebacker. Chaparral is young but talented, and Roh will need to perform statistically and use his experience to lead this group.
Priest Willis, Sr., DB, Marcos de Niza: The consensus top recruit in the East Valley, opposing offensive coordinators will be aware of the 6-foot-2, 200-pound safety on every play. Willis finished with 52 tackles, two fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions last season. His numbers may not be gaudy this year, but that’s because teams will scheme to run and pass away from him. But no matter what teams try to do, Willis is a freak athlete and should make his presence known throughout the season for the Padres.
Trevor Wood, Jr., TE, Chaparral: Wood is part of major roster changes in Scottsdale, where the three-time defending champions have lost practically everyone from the championship teams. New QB Sean Paul Brophy is also a youngster, but growth helps when you have a 6-foot-4, 220-pound tight end running down the middle of the field. New Firebirds coach Dave Huffine believes Wood will see a healthy number of college coaches strolling around the school with interest in Wood, who might soon be the best receiver of his size at Chaparral in a decade.
Aug. 31: Marcos de Niza at Chaparral: In the wake of being bludgeoned by Bishop Gorman (Las Vegas) in the Barry Sollenberger Classic, the Firebirds faced some fire, until they went into Tempe and pushed around Marcos de Niza to recapture their aura. This Chaparral team is much different (especially early) and the Padres are a talented bunch again, this time with some steam coming out of the collective ears.
Sept. 21: Ironwood Ridge at Marcos de Niza: The schedule eases up after this game, so if Marcos de Niza can exact revenge on last year’s regular season loss, it can then get healthy down the stretch and prepare for the postseason. A win in this game is important for the Padres, who would like to secure a high seed for the playoffs to make their journey as easy as possible. It won’t be easy though, as Ironwood Ridge returns quarterback Tyler Williams (836 yards passing, 1,043 yards rushing, 24 combined TD last year) and also fancies itself a Division II contender.
Sept. 7: Queen Creek at Perry: Queen Creek rallied from a 14-point deficit to win last year’s game in overtime, and this year’s contest figures to be well-contested once again. It is the first tough test of the year for both teams.
Oct. 26: Chaparral at Saguaro: Obviously. After Saguaro sat its starters and Chaparral crushed the backup Sabercats, John Sanders moved on from Saguaro to Arizona State. New coach Jason Mohns figures to take a different approach, and if so, a pretty heated rivalry could find itself twisted into a pretty good game.
Oct. 19: Cactus Shadows at Paradise Valley: Cactus Shadows won a shootout between these teams last year, and both starting quarterbacks return. The Trojans boast Boise State-bound signal-caller Ryan Finley while Cactus Shadows has Bryce Kinsler, so expect plenty of yardage and points.
Can the champions repeat? Three East Valley programs — Desert Vista, Chaparral and Saguaro — won state titles a year ago, and all three are ranked in the top-3 to start this season. Last year, the Firebirds and Sabercats were the favorites to win championships and did so. This season, Saguaro is once again a preseason No. 1, but Chaparral (No. 2 in Division II) and Desert Vista (No. 3 in Division III) need to reload and fill substantial holes. The Firebirds are aiming for their fourth consecutive state championship but will have to do it with almost an entirely new cast.
Marcos de Niza aims higher: The Padres have cemented themselves as yearly contenders, but have not gotten over the hump. Marcos de Niza again has the necessary athletes once again to be in the mix, led by cornerback Priest Willis, running back Mauriece Lee and wide receiver Paul Elvira. Chaparral has loosened its grip as the heavy favorite, and while Centennial is the preseason No. 1, Marcos de Niza has a chance at a title.
Perry’s push: The Pumas aren’t quite on the level as Chandler district brethren Hamilton, Chandler and Basha, but they are a program that keeps improving and are once again a preseason top-10 team. Perry loses quarterback Josh Uhlorn, who will be tough to replace, but it seems to be a team moving in the right direction.