Since late August, there have been countless unforgettable moments at high school stadiums near you.
As the final week of playoff positioning, fights to grasp one last region championship or even some offseason momentum get underway Friday night before the playoffs arrive, we wanted to take a subjective look back at some of the finer achievements of the regular season.
In one way or another, every high school player to lift weights at 6 a.m. in June, be part of kickoff coverage or just be the best teammate for their school they can be, have all left a mark on the 2010 season.
There are too many of everything to list here — countless close finishes, great individual performances, surprising upsets and much more.
Sure, the second season hasn’t begun for 4A and 5A schools. But it’s coming, so before we dream of what’s to come, let’s pause and remember where we’ve already been.
Best team: Chaparral
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. The Firebirds are the defending 5A Division II champions, and while they lost a lot of last year’s defense to graduation, this year’s group has been better. When Davonte Neal (Cesar Chavez) and Lucas Petrullo (Saguaro) moved into the area, the rampage was on. The Firebirds haven’t been tested in any game this season, and everyone other than coach Charlie Ragle would be hard-pressed to find even one half of a game in which an opponent had a realistic chance. What’s impressive is how the Chaparral coaching staff keeps this group together and aimed at a second consecutive state championship, while keeping individual goals, stats or accolades under wraps.
Honorable Mention: Hamilton
Best game: Centennial 48, Chandler 42.
What wasn’t to like in this one? Chandler quarterback Brett Hundley threw for 359 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 107 more, and it still wasn’t enough. The Wolves had four chances to score the game-winning touchdown from inside Centennial’s 10-yard line as time wound down, but all four pass fell incomplete as the Coyotes held on. The Wolves rallied from a 14-point halftime deficit, but couldn’t quite finish off the comeback. The game was full of big individual performances, as Chandler wide receiver Michael Okonkwo had nine catches for 190 yards, and Centennial’s Jalen Ortiz had four carries for 134 yards.
Honorable mention: Queen Creek 49, Cactus 42 (3 OT); Mesquite 28, Desert Ridge 27; Basha 21, Mesquite 20.
Best defense: Williams Field.
The Black Hawks came into the season with just three defensive starters returning from last season, none of whom were household names. Coach Steve Campbell liked that the unit played hard, but there was still a question in his mind on how good it could be. Through nine games, he can’t ask for much more. Williams Field has allowed only 50 points on the season, fewer than six per contest. It has four shutouts and has held every opponent on the schedule to under 17 points this season. While the offense gets most of the attention, the defense is a big reason why Williams Field is undefeated and a legitimate contender in the race for the 4A-II state title.
Honorable mention: Chaparral, Basha, Hamilton.
Best trick play: Jordan Becerra’s 65-yard wide receiver pass to Paris Clark.
Jordan Becerra played quarterback his entire life up until last year. He got a chance to show off that arm in the season opener against Mesquite, and it almost sparked an unlikely comeback. Desert Ridge trailed the Wildcats by seven points with time winding down, but quarterback Parker Rasmussen threw the ball to Becerra near the sideline, and he threw a laser to wide receiver Paris Clark, who streaked 60 yards down the sidelines for a touchdown to bring the Jaguars within one. Becerra scored on a subsequent two-point conversion, but it was negated by a penalty and Desert Ridge lost by a point. Still, the trick play gave Desert Ridge a chance.
Honorable mention: Hamilton’s 71-yard halfback touchdown pass from Blake Kemp to Tanner Clay against Chandler.
Jackson Harley’s fake punt run for a first down on Pinnacle’s eventual game-winning touchdown drive against Millennium.
Best player: Davonte Neal, WR/DB, Chaparral.
Chaparral is deep and talented enough that the vast majority of its players only see action in one facet of the game. Davonte Neal plays three, and he might be the best in the state at all of them. A lockdown cornerback with NFL potential, the highly regarded junior has excelled not only on defense this year, but offense and special teams as well. He had four interceptions in the team’s first five games — returning two for touchdowns — as opponents quickly learned not to even attempt passes in his direction. On offense, he has only 21 catches, but for 560 yards, nearly 27 yards per catch. He also averages 24 yards per punt return and more than 41 yards per kickoff return. Neal has scored 18 touchdowns this season, doing it on defense, offense and special teams. He has elite speed and athleticism, and is a danger to score every time he touches the ball.
Honorable mention: Teddy Ruben, QB, Saguaro; Brett Hundley, QB, Chandler; Chim Nga, RB, Queen Creek.
Best breakout season: Chim Nga, Queen Creek.
Nga was an unknown heading into this year, to say the least. He was third on the team in rushing last season, averaging 37 yards per game and a good-but-not-great 5.8 yards per carry. This year, with much of Queen Creek’s offense expected to go through third-year starting quarterback Adam Brzeczek, Nga stepped up to give the Bulldogs a legitimate second option. After spending most of last year as a linebacker, Nga has 1,672 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns through nine games — more than 185 yards per contest. Queen Creek is 8-1 and No. 2 in the 4A-I power rankings, and Nga is a big reason why.
Honorable mention: Tanner Clay, WR, Hamilton; Kyle Duran, QB, Basha; Jorge Pinero, DL, Red Mountain.
Best comeback: Red Mountain 38, Westwood 32.
Welcome to high school football, Ron Wisniewski. In his first game at the helm of Red Mountain, the Lions trailed 32-10 at halftime to Westwood and its skill-position athletes. Westwood used a 99-yard interception return and two touchdowns of at least 50 yards to build its lead. The Lions roared back after halftime, especially defensively. Cougar Garcia’s TD run with 2:57 left gave Red Mountain the lead, but it only stuck after Westwood converted a fourth-and-long, and a touchdown was called back on a penalty for Westwood having an ineligible player downfield. The last gasp was intercepted at Red Mountain’s 3-yard-line to preserve the craziest comeback thus far. “If it is all going to be like this, I need to get out of this job right now,” Wisniewski joked afterward.
Honorable Mention: Cactus Shadows scores 13 points in final four minutes to defeat Apache Junction, 23-20.
Best individual performance: Chandler QB Brett Hundley vs. Brophy (22-of-36 passing, 373 yards, 4 TD; 18 carries, 123 yards).
The late September victory against the Broncos on local TV was Hundley’s best overall passing performance of the season in both production and efficiency. It wasn’t his best rushing night statistically (231 yards, 2 TD vs. Mesa), but considering the Broncos have a solid defense, Hundley was a one-man show, something that’s happened a lot the past two seasons.
Honorable Mention: Saguaro QB Teddy Ruben vs. Tucson Canyon del Oro (15-of-23 passing, 252 yards; 29 carries, 205 yards, 3 TD)
Chaparral DB/WR Davonte Neal vs. Phoenix North Canyon (57-yard punt return for TD; 56-yard punt return for TD; 45-yard TD reception; 30-yard interception return for TD).
Best coaching job: Tommy Brittain, Tempe Prep
It’s not only that this program, in its second year of playing 2A competition, hammered both powerhouse Christian schools (Scottsdale Christian and Valley Christian) during the Knights’ current six-game winning streak. It’s not even that the Knights have to practice in a nearby park, play their “home” games on either the Arizona Lutheran Academy or Canyon State fields, or the lack of weight room, gym, band, etc. It’s that Brittain’s team has done all this a year after being whooped by the 2A Central competition, and earned a “home” playoff game this week without 2009 all-region running back/linebacker Rocky Brittain for two-thirds of the season because of injuries.
Honorable mention: Joe Germaine (Queen Creek), Preston Jones (Perry), Charlie Ragle (Chaparral), Bernie Busken (Basha).
Best upset: St. Mary’s 16, Brophy 13
This was another of the uber-difficult ones to pick, but two things eventually swayed it toward The Rivalry. First, St. Mary’s dressed about half as many players as Brophy, and it’s been that way for a long, long time. Second, the Broncos still had starting sophomore QB Tyler Bruggman healthy at the time (he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in practice three weeks ago). The Knights led wire-to-wire and held on after a shanked punt when Brophy unsuccessfully tried a fourth-and-10 instead of a game-tying field goal. The win snapped a seven-game losing skid against their bigger Central Phoenix brethren, thanks to Patrick Barefield (2 TDs), Orange Mooney (while dealing with the death of his mother) and the Knights’ special teams blocking a Brophy field goal just before halftime.
Honorable Mention: Red Mountain 31, Centennial 24; Tempe Prep 35, Scottsdale Christian 13; Perry 23, Marcos de Niza 17