Two undefeated teams. Two legendary coaches. The No. 1 team in the Division II power rankings playing host to the top team in all the state’s media polls.
The potential for a classic is there when No. 1 Centennial (6-0) visits No. 5 Deer Valley (6-0) Thursday night for a clash of ... wait, Deer Valley? The school with two playoff wins in three decades?
Believe it. The Skyhawks are flying at a new altitude this season, thanks to a combination of the most gifted senior class in school history and a staff led by former three-time national junior college champion head coach Joe Kersting.
“We kind of have our players at a point where, they just like to play. They’re having fun playing football. When you’re having fun — when you execute, put up 500 yards, make big plays and get big hits — that’s fun football," Kersting said. "They know who Centennial is, I don’t have to talk about them. Just go do what we do. If it’s good enough, we’ll win the game. If it isn’t, we won’t.”
And the Skyhawks haven’t plowed through creampuffs for the best start in program history, as evidenced by their standing atop the power points. Solid wins over Willow Canyon, Scottsdale Horizon, Goodyear Millennium and Prescott Valley Bradshaw Mountain are signs of Deer Valley’s growth.
That said, the Skyhawks understand Centennial is a different beast entirely. Deer Valley needed late touchdowns to beat Willow Canyon and Millennium, teams Centennial trounced by 34 and 44 points, respectively.
But the Skyhawks enter with confidence, particularly in an offense averaging 550 yards and 44 points per game. It’s faceoff with a Centennial defense allowing only eight points per game should be one of the best of the high school season.
“They’re a very good team. They put a lot of pressure up the middle, they have some big guys. We know, as an offensive line, that this is going to be our biggest test of the year,” Deer Valley senior tackle Stephen Arnold said. “But I think our offense is more than capable of putting up points. If we execute the way we can, it should be a good matchup.”
While Deer Valley has not encountered a defense this dominant before, the reverse is also true. Centennial faced two teams with good offensive lines and elite individual players, and the results were mixed.
The Coyotes struggled to contain star dual-threat quarterback Jon Brown in a 40-28 victory over Apollo. They held powerful Tucson Ironwood Ridge tailback Mitch Fischer to 86 yards on 19 carries in last week’s 21-7 win.
This week the Coyotes will be tested by the most complete offense they’ve faced. Deer Valley has balance, size up front, experience and speed to burn.
"When you have a team that can both pass and run, and they have a quarterback that can run also and you've got the fastest kid in the state, that causes some problems," Centennial
Senior Trae Armstrong, the aforementioned fastest man in the state, is the foundation of the attack, with 1,079 yards and 15 touchdowns on 125 carries. But if a defense overcommits on Armstrong, senior quarterback Auston Hillman can burn them in two ways.
Hillman is 59-88 this season for 1,163 yards, eight touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s also rushed for 382 yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries.
Hillman has established a potent connection with senior Jacques Bruce (22 catches, 512 yards) over the course of two seasons. And in recent weeks, junior Luke Doyle has stepped up to provide a second deep threat (19 catches, 346 yards).
“They’ve seen it a lot more now. It’s second nature. They’re not thinking anymore, they’re playing football,” Kersting said.
Much like the Deer Valley offense, there aren’t weak spots on the Centennial defense. Last week star junior defensive end Marcus Farria (who had 5.5 sacks in his first three games) sat out after missing practice, but the Coyotes didn’t miss a beat with junior Sam Ray starting in his place.
Farria was back in drills this week, and if he starts he’ll team with senior defensive tackles Josh Stevens and Devin Leon and junior end Dominique Hodge to form arguably the best front four in the state.
“I see 11 full-speed football players. They don’t take any plays off,” Kersting said. “They’re very well coached and they understand their system well.”
There’s little drop-off in the linebacking corps with seniors Walter Nunley and Brennan Franklin flanking junior Wes Westbrook. And the Coyotes’ most accomplished player, California-bound senior Zach Hoffpauir, heads a ball-hawking secondary, which features seniors Troy Hawthorne, Hayden Sovacki and Justin Poindexter along with junior Jalen Ortiz.
"It's going to take us as a defense to gang-tackle (Armstrong). Our defensive line has to step up," Franklin said. "Our defense and our team are really close. We practice 100 percent all the time. The intensity we practice with as a defense brought us together."
On the flip side, Centennial’s offense could have an advantage over an improving but still vulnerable Deer Valley defense.
The Skyhawks still give up big yardage totals, but have cut their points allowed from 31 in 2010 to 20 per game this year. There’s some elite individual talent in each group — senior middle linebacker John Reed averages seven tackles per game, Reed and senior ends Jeremy Wood and Quinten Morgan have two sacks apeice, and senior cornerback Kenny Bowden has a pair of picks.
But Kersting knows the defense will have to accelerate its growth curve to slow down the Coyotes.
"We're probably not as good defensively as they are but hopefully we can make a difference offensively and on special teams and our defense can continue to get better," Kersting said. "For the most part, the people we've played against they've earned it. They've earned the yards and scores they get. Millennium has some really good skill players."
Meanwhile, Taylor wants to see his offense slow itself down less often. Though less potent than Deer Valley, Centennial’s attack is equally balanced and packed with talent.
Senior quarterback Justin Sanchez keeps the chains moving in the mid-range passing game, distributing the ball to Hawthorne, Sovacki, and fellow senior receivers Tyler Beeneau and Jesse Callahan. But the Coyotes’ big guns are in the backfield.
Ortiz and Hoffpauir are threats whether rushing or receiving. Though not an elite national sprinter like Armstrong, Ortiz is far too fast for most defenses to handle with 764 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns on 58 touches.
Hoffpauir isn’t as fast, but is the team’s finisher with 11 touchdowns and 301 yards on 33 carries and 126 yards and another score on six catches. Sophomore Matt Rodriguez has emerged recently, gaining 167 yards on 24 carries in the last three games.
This week, it’s paramount for the Coyotes to make the most of their scoring chances.
"You just don't know how many possessions you're going to get," Taylor said. "Last week, I felt like we left some points out there on the field. We're going to try to correct that."
The matchup is chock full with intriguing subplots as well.
It’s the first varsity game between schools only six miles apart. More intriguing, its the first time these West Valley coaching pillars have faced one another.
Taylor began as the Peoria High defensive coordinator around the time Kersting started as the Glendale Community College head coach. Later, Taylor started the Centennial program and came into closer contact with the coach of the area’s dominant juco program.
His son, Andrew, was one of many Centennial players to play for Kersting at GCC. Andrew Taylor is now Centennial’s well-respected defensive coordinator.
Several years ago, Kersting retired. By the time he resumed head coaching at Deer Valley in 2010, the Taylor family had built a dynasty at Centennial
"Joe is such a great coach and it'll be very exciting for my son who played for him at GCC and has the ultimate respect for him," Taylor said.
Another variable is injuries. Ortiz suffered a concussion, and Nunley missed the second half against Ironwood Ridge. Both are questionable for this week, Taylor said. Meanwhile, Deer Valley senior tight end/punter Frank Walker is out after injuring his knee in a 51-24 win at Bradshaw Mountain Friday.
The final factor is what should be an unprecedented atmosphere for a Deer Valley football game. The Skyhawks' 6-0 start, coming off a 6-6 season, has ignited the student body and booster club.
Though Deer Valley has been around a decade more than Centennial, it’s fair to say this is the biggest home game in school history.
"I think it definitely is the biggest game we've had. From last year to this year is a huge difference in the student body," Arnold said. "This year it's 'we're going to the football game Friday night to watch Deer Valley.' Everything's changed. We have a lot more fans, a lot more interaction and its more of a team atmosphere."