Outlook: For years Pinnacle has been a playoff participant, but more often than not, the season ended prematurely.
In trying to become an elite program in Division I, Pinnacle is counting on a more difficult schedule, a quarterback attracting Division I college offers and a wealth of returning starters in hopes of taking the next step.
Brian Lewerke saw snaps last season, and the keys to this bus are in his hands now. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior threw for 274 yards, 4 TD and an interception in limited action last season. But the Pioneers have a lot of confidence in Lewerke, who turned many heads this summer at various camps and combines, and earned an offer from Arizona State.
His passing accumen could somehow make Josh Hoekstra even more difficult to stop in the backfield. Hoekstra ran for 1,538 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior with a blend of power and speed that made defenses duck for cover.
Can he and Lewerke stay on their feet? The Pioneers won't have as much size up front on either side of the ball. That, plus improved defense will be key. If Lewerke can get the ball to Cules Rose (24 yards per catch, 8 TD in 2012) and Daniel Galindo (587 yards, 4 TD), the Pioneers could be one of the best offenses in the East Valley.
Cole Neubauer (69 tackles, three sacks) and Trevor Colceri (five sacks) are poised for breakout seasons defensively, as the Pioneers return seven (including Rose and Galindo as two-way starters). Zupke, who's run the program for more than a decade, is also going to have more hands-on work on the defensive side, something he hasn't done in the past four years.
"We will not have the size up front that we've had in the past, but we will be faster," he said.
The schedule is also key. Pinnacle had good regular season success the past couple years, but strength of schedule wasn't often a strength and the Pioneers were punished in the playoffs.
Red Mountain, Hamilton, Basha and Mountain View in the first half of the season will change that perception quickly.
Division I, Section V
Coach: Dana Zupke
Last year's record: 8-3, lost to Westview in first round of Division I playoffs
Returning starters: 7 on offense/ 6 on defense
Top returners: RB Josh Hoekstra (183 carries, 1,538 yards, 16 TD); QB Brian Lewerke (22-41 passing, 274 yards, 4 TD, 1 INT; 18 carries, 147 yards, 3 TD); WR Daniel Galindo (38 rec., 587 yards, 4 TD; WR/DB Cules Rose (22 rec., 546 yards, 8 TD; 29 tackles, 3 INT); LB Cole Neubauer (69 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 FF); DL Trevor Colceri (38 tackles, 5 sacks);
Aug. 30 vs. Red Mountain; Sept. 6 at Millennium; Sept. 12 (Thur.) at Hamilton; Sept. 20 at Basha; Sept. 27 vs. Mountain View; Oct. 4 vs. North Canyon; Oct. 11 at Sandra Day O'Connor; Oct. 18 vs. Mountain Ridge; Oct. 25 vs. Horizon; Nov. 1 at Boulder Creek
Aug. 30 vs. Red Mountain: A great test right out of the gate to gauge where Pinnacle is. Red Mountain might not be quite as arduous a task as what's coming after this game, but it's the type of game Pinnacle needs as a measurement, and the type of game not often found on previous schedules.
Sept. 20 at Basha: In the wake of Hamilton a week prior, there's no rest here. But both the Huskies and especially this game against Basha's potentially top-tier passing attack is just what the Pioneers defense will see come playoff time.
Sept. 27 vs. Mountain View: The Toros' Clark Brown basically won this game for Mountain View on his own, carving up Pinnacle's special teams with two TD returns and another TD reception in a 43-31 loss to Mountain View. The Toros should be good again. Lessons learned?
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.