Notre Dame Saints
Division II, Section III
Coach: Gary Gregory
Last year's record: 7-5, lost to Tucson Ironwood Ridge in Division II quarterfinals
Returning offensive starters: 6, including tight end Grant Martinez, who's headed to Arizona State next fall. His passing catching and route running make him among best tight ends in the state, and he'll have increased blocking duties this fall.
Returning defensive starters: 7, including defensive end Parker Zellers who put on 30 pounds of weight and is up to 265 pounds. He'll anchor a defensive line which should be improved from last season.
Aug. 24 vs. Marcos de Niza; Aug. 31 vs. Father Judge (PA) (in Dublin, Ireland); Sept. 7 at Hamilton; Sept. 14 vs. Barry Goldwater; Sept. 21 vs. Desert Mountain; Sept. 28 at Chaparral; Oct. 4 vs. Shadow Mountain; Oct. 12 at Cactus Shadows; Oct. 19 at McClintock; Oct. 26 vs. Horizon
Aug. 24 vs. Marcos de Niza: Whether the Saints can keep up with Marcos de Niza, a bigger, faster, deeper team is the issue here. A win for Notre Dame is a stretch but not out of the question. Playing well, however, would be a confidence boost during this rough schedule after a 56-6 loss to the Padres in 2011.
Sept. 21 vs. Desert Mountain: A case could be made that this is where the Saints season finally turned in its favor last year. A 14-point fourth quarter keyed the comeback victory against the Div. I Wolves. Both teams could be better than last year, and this could be a "swing" game for Notre Dame in terms of getting back to postseason, especially if DM winds up with a a winning record.
Sept. 28 at Chaparral: For some reason this game was a national TV broadcast last year, even though Notre Dame (though a good team) had little chance of keeping up with Chaparral. That's exactly what happened in a 59-7 rout by Chaparral. Not as likely this time around given Notre Dame's experience and Chaparral's lack thereof. This could be a good, close game, at least for a while.
Though it's odd and incredibly unwelcomed, a new era begins at Notre Dame.
That's because of Scot Bemis, the beloved football/girls soccer coach and science teacher who passed away from cancer last January after taking a leave of absence in mid-September. Longtime assistant and friend Gary Gregory took over then and is now Bemis' permanent replacement.
It was a trying time to say the least at the North Scottsdale school, while the football team played through its coach a rugged early-season schedule that had the Saints headed for nowhere-ville midway through the season.
"Somehow, some way we can’t start that way again," Gregory said.
The Saints rallied back, won four consecutive games (including a wild finale against Horizon) to earn a playoff spot, then won at Tucson Salpointe Catholic to reach the quarterfinals.
The biggest departure to graduation was QB Jordan Gehrke, a two-year starter and school record holder. Nick Duckworth has size (6-foot-4) and the arm, but hasn't taken varsity snaps.
"We’ll hope it doesn’t come to it but we have confidence in the kid," Gregory said. "He’s fared pretty well (in passing leagues) and gradually got better as summer went on."
The schedule is relentless again (Marcos de Niza, a trip to Ireland, Hamilton, Desert Mountain, Chaparral), especially early. This time, however, an experienced team should be easier to acclimate itself with the competition hike. Nearly all of the Saints offensive lineman return as do running backs Nick Cole (1,445 yards, 13 TDs) and Luke Taffuri (268 yards, 4 TD), a pair of power runners who'll again bully their way behind an offensive line in which four starters are returning.
Leading an experience unit with Parker Zellers, Jordan Schlueter returns at free safety and will also see time on offense, whom Gregory believes has the most pure speed of any Notre Dame player in years.
The Saints appear poised to make another move in the Division II race. If they can reach the postseason again, they will have a competitive advantage over most teams in Div. II.
It's a brutal road to take, but their former coach wouldn't settle for any shortcuts, and they're not about to gloss over those instructions.
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.