Predictions for the Division I, III and IV football championship games:
Hamilton vs. Mountain Pointe
Given both team’s abilities to run the ball and play defense, the obvious differences will be in turnovers, whether one team can effectively pass the ball and special teams. Problem is, even those are pretty even overall. Hamilton’s offense was pretty non-existent last week, and while the Huskies knew that and will make some tweaks (try and get Cole Luke the ball more), the Huskies also know they’re facing a defense every bit as good or better than Desert Ridge. Both teams will dig into the playbook for trickery if necessary. It’s up to Mountain Pointe’s offensive line and Antonio Hinojosa to make good decisions (even it it means an incompletion or leads to a punt) and not get overwhelmed by the big stage and the moment. The hunch here is he can manage the game, while the Pride’s defense can keep the Hamilton offense in check just enough and force A.J. Thigpen to stay in the pocket and read progressions.
Prediction: Mountain Pointe 17, Hamilton 13
This surely looks to be a heavyweight battle. This game probably features the top two defenses in the state, particularly in the secondaries, so the passing games aren’t expected to have much success. Hamilton’s offense struggled mightily last week against Desert Ridge, which is a concern as it faces a unit that’s even better. This game could hinge on a few big plays. If Hamilton or Mountain Pointe can come up with a defensive touchdown or a long special teams return, it gives that team a big edge. The Pride has the top running back (Garette Craig) and top receiver (Jalen Brown) in this game, which gives it a slight edge. Hamilton has a bunch of playmakers on defense and the unit has shown to be very opportunistic. It should be a close game and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a late field goal decide this one, just like the first meeting.
Prediction: Mountain Pointe 16, Hamilton 13
-- Kyle Odegard
Queen Creek vs. Desert Edge
The spotlight will be on Queen Creek’s defense against Desert Edge’s swanky offense, a spread-you-out style with a good, diverse running back in Kyle Woolard and a bunch of athletes (Elijah Marks, 6-foot-4 Ismael Murphy-Richardson and C.J. Heard) who catch Sawyer Lung’s passes in space and then move. It starts with Matt Guida, but Queen Creek’s offense is balanced with Carson Jones, Gabe Vasquez and Mike Graff catching Jones’ passes. The Bulldogs will move the ball, but can they slow down the Scorpions? The Bulldogs figure to be physical with Desert Edge and force the Scorpions to go 8-, 10- and 12-play drives and take away Desert Edge’s vertical passing game. Queen Creek’s excellent tackling will be a huge factor. Both sides will be amped having never been to this stage in recent history, but the Bulldogs have done it defensively all year, why not one more time?
Prediction: Queen Creek 31, Desert Edge 24
Queen Creek running back Matt Guida leads the state in rushing and is averaging 14.6 yards per carry. If he comes close to that number, chalk this up for the Bulldogs. However, Desert Edge has contained Thunderbird’s Kani Benoit and Saguaro’s potent running game already this season and has eyes on slowing down Guida. If the Scorpions can limit him, it gives them a great chance because Queen Creek’s offense is predicated on that run-first mentality. On the flip side, the Bulldogs are facing a Desert Edge offense with more weapons than they have seen. Queen Creek will be disciplined and in the right spots, but that might not matter if QB Sawyer Lung, RB Kyle Woolard, WR Elijah Marks and WR Ismael Murphy-Richardson make plays. It’s another game which could go either way.
Prediction: Queen Creek 21, Desert Edge 18
-- Kyle Odegard
Seton Catholic vs. Blue Ridge
This game got real interesting real quick. First, it wasn’t just that Seton knocked off Show Low in the semifinals (impressive though that is given the troubles with White Mountain teams in recent seasons), it’s that the Sentinels decimated Show Low’s defense with its passing game, and stuffed Show Low which ran for 259 yards against Blue Ridge and played the Yellow Jackets to within 10 points in mid-October. Blue Ridge is a different animal defensively, not to mention the Yellow Jackets are loaded with championship experience under a future Hall-of-Fame coach in Paul Moro. Seton is going to face a huge helping of Nolan Cook out of Blue Ridge’s backfield, but the big issue with Blue Ridge is that Arizona State-commit Chans Cox could be severely limited because of a fractured bone in his foot, part of his injury-derailed senior season. The Yellow Jackets would be favorites except for Cox’s injury combined with the mission Seton appears to be on makes this game a potential thriller. It’s rare at any level when a split-quarterback system works as well as it has for the Sentinels, and their defense has been an unsung hero during the playoffs. It’s worth noting the altitude plays a factor here with the game in Flagstaff (evelation 5,000 feet), especially for unaccustomed teams with several two-way players.
Prediction: Blue Ridge 24, Seton Catholic 20
This game’s result could become pretty apparent early on. The Seton defense had all sorts of trouble against the Blue Ridge running game in last year’s Division IV semifinals, giving up 440 yards in a blowout loss. However, the Sentinels stymied fellow White Mountain power Show Low in the semifinals this year and now eyes revenge against the Yellow Jackets. Former Gilbert Christian star Nolan Cook is starring at running back at Blue Ridge, and if he rips off big gains consistently, Seton won’t have much of a chance. However, if Seton can make some plays to slow him and give its potent passing game a chance, this game should be very competitive. The Sentinels know what to expect and thinks it can pull the upset. However, Blue Ridge has been the dominant small-school force for years and should get it done again.
Prediction: Blue Ridge 31, Seton Catholic 21
-- Kyle Odegard