No. 1 Hamilton vs. Chula Vista (Calif.) Eastlake at San Diego Cathedral High
The Huskies will begin their title defense in California this year. Hamilton started last season 0-2 but turned it on late for yet another Division I championship. The defense returns eight starters and has a chance to be one of the most dominant units in Arizona history, led by DL Qualen Cunningham, LB Santana Sterling, DL Caleb Peart, DB Levi Sterling and DB Juwan Jones. The offense must replace all of its starting skill players, but has three dominant offensive linemen in Casey Tucker, Bryce Holland and Garrett Rand. Sammy Sasso is the new quarterback but won’t be counted on to win games by himself because the defense is so good. Eastlake is no slouch, as it went 10-3 last season and won its playoff sectional. However, its offense was senior-dominated, and it’s a tough task asking a bunch of new faces to succeed against one of the scariest defenses in the country. The Huskies may have some hiccups offensively with so many new pieces, but it shouldn’t matter. This one might not be a work of art, but Hamilton should get the job done.
Prediction: Hamilton 24, Eastlake 7
-- Kyle Odegard
No. 7 Desert Mountain at Brophy
The game plan is clear: Keep the ball away from Desert Mountain’s offense and try to make anyone other than Desert Mountain WR Mark Andrews beat the Broncos. Brophy, of course, has defensive coordinator Gary Galante, one of the best in the state. This may be a different Brophy team (inexperienced) but what opponent has ever seen Brophy on the schedule and not been nervous? The Wolves will face a hostile environment at Phoenix College, but they have before and persevered. This might be the time to catch Brophy while the Broncos are still figuring out what they have and what they can do. Experience matters, at least in the earlygoing.
Prediction: Desert Mountain 24, Brophy 17
-- Mark Heller
No. 1 Saguaro (Div. III) at No. 1 Chaparral (Div. II)
One of the state’s biggest rivalries revs up this year to kick off the regular season instead of end it. Both teams are again the favorites in their respective divisions and have high-powered offenses. The Sabercats feature Cal-bound quarterback Luke Rubenzer and star junior wide receiver Christian Kirk. J.T. Nettleton, a transfer from Washington state, could be another big contributor, while Erik Swanson becomes the primary running back. Chaparral’s defense is solid, though, and while the Sabercats are too explove to be shut down, the Firebirds could make it tough on them. Chaparral’s offense is just as potent, as Tyler Whiley, Elijah Castro, Isreal Simpson and Trevor Wood may combine to be the deepest and most talented collection of skill players in Division II. Saguaro’s defense had trouble last year and this is a huge test out of the gate. Chaparral controlled last year’s matchup from the outset and has more talent on both sides of the ball in 2013. Saguaro has little margin for error if it wants to pull off the upset.
Prediction: Chaparral 38, Saguaro 28
-- Kyle Odegard
No. 3 Centennial (Div. II) at No. 4 Chandler (Div. I)
Athletes ahoy. Both schools have been in the “elite” class recently, whether for long periods of time as Centennial (Division II) has dating back to its 5A Division II days, or off-and-on in the case of Chandler. Both teams certainly could play the part again in 2013, because both teams are well-stocked in speed, talent and something to prove. Centennial was crushed by Tucson Ironwood Ridge in last year’s state championship game, while the Wolves have revamped their defensive style to a degree under Thurmond Moore, while Shaun Aguano’s team is loaded at the skill positions with Bryce Perkins, Dionte Sykes, Chase Lucas and Mitch McCulley. The Coyotes, meanwhile, are trying to plug in a lot of new pieces defensively, and, with or without Sykes this week while waiting for medical clearance to return from a broken hand, will have a tough task. So, too, will Chandler’s defense in handling Centennial’s running game, the kind of thing that’s caused problems for the Wolves for four quarters in recent history. It’s a juggernaut of an opener for both schools, and a shootout isn’t far-fetched.
Prediction: Centennial 27, Chandler 24
-- Mark Heller
Desert Vista vs. Mission Hills (Calif.) at San Diego Cathedral High
The opening game of Saturday’s “Brothers in Arms Classic” tournament featuring Hamilton, Desert Ridge and the Thunder. Desert Vista certainly has different personnel from the better part of the 2011 championship team and 2012 squad, but Jalen Jenks (Oregon commit) and new QB Cade Van Raaphorst will lead the defense and offense, respectively. There are other pieces in play here, and a running-game-by-committee approach may be D.V.’s best option to start the season, but there are other wrinkles here D.V. likes to implement not often seen by California teams. Mission Hills lost in the last year’s playoffs to Eastlake (who is playing Hamilton in the 1:30 p.m. game) but there were significant changes here with a senior-heavy lineup lost to graduation. It’s often a wildcard when an out-of-state team has to travel with 80-plus kids, coach and staff, but the Thunder are a pretty grounded group. If they can get past the nerves early and relative unknown of their opponent, the Thunder catching Mission Hills early could work in their favor.
Prediction: Desert Vista 21, Mission Hills 17
No. 3 Queen Creek (Div. III) at No. 10 Highland (Div. I)
An interesting matchup, not only being nearby teams who’ve had success recently, but are playing each other while being two divisions apart (Highland is Division I and Q.C. is Division III). They’re also identical in many ways, namely relying on a running game and strong defense. Queen Creek had those working (especially defensively) well enough to beat Poston Butte last week in its season opener. The rare school with a game under its belt is a significant advantage, but the Bulldogs are facing a different proposition this week, and Highland’s returning experience across the board is also significant, not to mention its depth. Queen Creek might have the best player on the field (RB Matt Guida) but the Hawks won’t be fazed. Like most of this week’s games, it’ll be a close call.
Prediction: Highland 17, Queen Creek 13
Red Mountain at No. 8 Pinnacle
Pinnacle grabbed one of the final spots in the Tribune’s preseason top-10 rankings, although Red Mountain was also squarely in that mix. The Mountain Lions were better last season but must replace key offensive contributors Mason Thorman, Drake Pierre and Aeron Carr. Pinnacle returns more key pieces, led by running back Josh Hoekstra, defensive lineman Cole Neubauer and wide receiver Daniel Galindo. It will also be the first start for promising quarterback Brian Lewerke, who picked up a scholarship offer from Arizona State this summer. Red Mountain has strong participation numbers, and there are bound to be promising players who take over main roles in 2013. This game should help show where the Mountain Lions reside among the top teams in Division I.
Prediction: Pinnacle 24, Red Mountain 20
-- Kyle Odegard
Mesquite at Gilbert
Why not start the season against a rival? Though with vastly different reasons behind the changes, both schools are beginning significant transformations to the programs this year in an effort to return to prominence. Mesquite hired longtime coach Jim Jones and is now in Division II. Gilbert hired longtime assistant (Hamilton and Basha) Tim Rutt after it fired Leland Rogers after one season and has tried to instill a more disciplinary approach. Both schools are mostly starting from scratch, but especially Gilbert which has to break in a new group of offensive skill position players around RB/DB Erik Hironaka, with Tyler Stephenson the new QB after transferring from Chaparral, and Alex Gerstner who transferred from Chandler. Mesquite has a solid defense (especially the secondary with Juan Giraldo and Jordan Robinson) but has a mostly new group offensively outside Paul Perry and Payton Haslam, but Gilbert’s offensive line figures to be a strength. The journey for both begins, but Gilbert’s size and depth might make the difference during the hot August nights.
Prediction: Gilbert 20, Mesquite 13
No. 6 Basha at Henderson (Nev.) Green Valley
The Bears will travel out of state for the first time in their history to face off with a top-5 Nevada team in Green Valley. Mountain Pointe defeated Bishop Gorman — Nevada’s best team — last week, and Tucson Salpointe had its way against Liberty, so Basha will look to make it 3-0 against Nevada opponents. The offense should be good out of the gate, as quarterback Zach Werlinger and running back Rajhan Meriwether have the talent and experience to lead the way. Brandon Rutt is the leader on defense, but that’s where the Bears have more question marks. Green Valley’s offense is its strength, as dual-threat quarterback Christian Lopez and wide receiver Markus Varner could be tough to contain. This one has all the makings of a shootout, and even though both teams have talented players, I’ll go with the Arizona team based on the previous week’s results.
Prediction: Basha 35, Green Valley 31
-- Kyle Odegard
No. 3 Desert Ridge vs. Gardena (Calif.) Serra at San Diego Cathedral High
By the end of the season, Desert Ridge could be among the main contenders for the Division I state championship, but it might not start out too great with this matchup. The Jaguars will be without star quarterback Tarek Morrison, who is still rehabilitating his knee after tearing an ACL in last year’s playoffs, and in his place will be fullback-turned-signal-caller Alec Hathcock. Gardena Serra should be able to focus on stopping the run because of a limited passing threat, and its defense, which returns nine starters, is plenty good enough to neautralize Desert Ridge’s offensive line. The Jaguars should be good defensively this year, but Serra features Boise State-commit Jalen Greene as a dual-threat quarterback and super-athlete Adoree Jackson in the backfield and at wide receiver. Serra has 14 players with scholarship offers and is ranked in the top-10 in several national polls. Desert Ridge is good, but not this good.
Prediction: Serra 34, Desert Ridge 14
-- Kyle Odegard