An already close Sunrise Mountain football class of 2021 was brought closer by the possibility their high school careers would end in a boardroom courtesy of a pandemic.
Many of these Mustangs started playing together in elementary school, lead the 2017 freshman team to an undefeated season with wins over Liberty and Scottsdale Saguaro, and then paid their dues on two 5A quarterfinal teams.
Now after losing spring practice, 7-on-7 play and summer camp, Sunrise Mountain looks to have gained an opportunity to prove itself on the field. Practice started Tuesday, and barring a late COVID-19 second wave, the season opener Oct. 2 at district rival Cactus is a go.
“Now it’s all coming together and it’s definitely more meaningful knowing we have overcome all of this,” senior cornerback/receiver Bryce Cord said.
Coach Steve Decker said the players have been really good with following the “new normal” regulations for summer work outs. They show up with their masks on and keep social distance.
Mustang football is trying to get through with no issues, and Decker said on Aug. 26 that they have not had any.
“We have 18 returning starters and we’re as loaded as we’ve ever been. Even more so, a lot of those guys played a ton or started as sophomores. This is going to be the most talented team we’ve had in a long time and these guys have been in the trenches and in playoff games,” Decker said. “That’s why it’s so important that these seniors have a season.”
This senior class is unusual for more than its depth. The Mustangs are stacked on defense, both lines and skill positions.
For the first time since 2013, the big question surrounding Sunrise Mountain football is at quarterback. Freshman Chase Cord took over midway through that season and set records on his way to Boise State. Keegan Fried followed with big seasons in 2017 and 2018 before matriculating to Air Force, and Alex Gianoli shined in his lone shot last season.
Now there is a legitimate quarterback competition between three transfers, none of whom have been on this North Peoria campus more than two years. Senior Mike Chavarria is the “veteran.” The former Liberty transfer took snaps in the Apollo and Centennial games last year.
Saguaro transfer and junior Hunter Kronengold will sit the first four games. Senior Travis Ward has a shot from day one after moving in from Reno, Nevada. Decker said the 6-4, 200-pound newcomer looks very impressive at times, but all three quarterbacks are getting equal reps as September begins.
The winner of the quarterback derby gets to operate a spread offense full of experience and talent. It begins with an offensive line returning four starters — senior center Robert Maple, junior guard Matthew Hapner and senior tackles Cameron Hughes and Mason Tamayo.
Junior guard Justin Firriolo joins the experienced line as the fifth starter. Maple and Tamayo are third-year starters, and Decker said the 6-3, 300-pound Hughes impressed with his mobility last year.
“We have three or four running backs now and three of them are fast,” Maple said. “We have a good bond. Whenever it comes to football, we feel like brothers. For the most part, everyone knows what to do on each play.”
Sunrise Mountain junior running back Brandon Bogard (21) is congratulated by a teammate after scoring on a touchdown run against Ironwood during the first half of their 5A football game on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. Both starters return for the 2020 Mustangs (Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps)
Senior Tommy Arnold will be the featured back and see plenty of time at linebacker, while fellow senior and starting free safety Brandon Bogard is a speedy change of pace. Senior Julian Esber is a back/receiver that did not play as a junior but Decker said he is excited about his potential.
Senior Ezekiel Marshall is the top returning receiver and a premier deep threat. The 5-8 dynamo snagged 25 receptions for 556 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
Cord will start at cornerback and play often as a receiver after an early season injury caused him to switch from running back.
“It fits his style more. And he’s put on weight. He’s the fastest guy on our team now and could play Division I corner. It’s in his bloodline,” Decker said.
Decker said senior Chase Birdsong matured physically this year, had good skills from day one and will slide into Nate Duran’s slot role.
Both Cord and Maple said defensive tackle is another vastly improved senior to watch. Other than quarterback, defensive line is the Mustangs’ main area of uncertainty.
Sunrise Mountain usually employs a 3-4 scheme and Decker envisions five or six players rotating in the top three, including Maple and Tamayo. Defensive end William Howald provides the senior stability for this group, having started last season and contributed to 29 tackles.
The back eight of the defense is loaded with second- and third-year starters poised to return the Mustangs defense to the heights they witnessed as freshmen in 2017. That was the program’s best team yet, going 11-2, reaching the state semifinals for the only time, and allowing just 15 points per game.
Meanwhile the freshman team that year held every opponent under 15 points except Liberty and Saguaro, who the Mustangs still beat.
“A lot of us came from eighth grade playing together so when we came into high school we were a tight bunch. Having that undefeated season gave us a lot of confidence and some of us played up,” Cord said.
Now in 2020 seniors Micah Scott and Owen Thomas lead the linebacking corps, with Arnold available in big spots.
Cord joins three returning starters in the secondary — Bogard, and corners Elijah Anderson and Steven Hoffman.
Anderson, with four offers from smaller colleges, may be the most accomplished 2021 player.
Cord said the group’s familiarity and chemistry helps when making checks. That is true of almost every position group and gives the Mustangs an advantage after a summer where teams saw significantly less preparation time.
“If we had to play a game next Saturday, I think we could do it,” Decker said.
Sunrise Mountain junior running back Ezekiel Marshall (1) carries the ball on a touchdown run against Ironwood during the first half of their 5A football game on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019. (Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps)
When Sunrise Mountain could meet, they focused on conditioning and run-throughs. But the team’s high number of participants caused one sacrifice.
“Where I think we’re a little bit behind is the weight room. We have not been in the weight room. With the stipulations put in front of us I said it’s not worth it, it’s not worth getting people sick or being there 12 hours a day to get everybody in,” Decker said.
Schedule wise, the COVID-altered season caused the team to lose games with Vail Cienega, Marana Mountain View.
Now the Mustangs start with two top 4A teams, in-district rival Cactus and defending champion Gilbert Mesquite. After concerns that the North Peoria rivalry with Liberty would be lost, this yearly standout game was rescheduled to Oct. 16.
Now the only question is the season finale with Laveen Betty Fairfax, as that school and the rest of the Phoenix Union High School District canceled fall sports in July,. Recently, PUHSD discussed a later start to the season so this game is more likely to happen.
Decker said he hopes one way or another these kids get to play eight games, and his seniors are happy for that opportunity.
“We’ve been together for a while and we’ve always been able to go through the adversity. We knew we’d have a special group this senior year and now we’re here,” Maple said.
Decker said he learned a lot during this unusual summer, including forming closer relationships with players. One valuable lesson was sometimes it is better to have less of a focus on football.
“I think it made the coaches and the kids realize how important football is to them. Having to sit out spring and summer and with there maybe not being a season, I think they’re really hungry and excited to be out here,” Decker said. “We as a staff talked in the spring, when we didn’t have spring ball. We did Zoom meetings but most of our Zoom meetings weren’t about football. We were able to get to know the kids a little more personally and talk about their families. It was really nice and I’ll tell you right now, if everything gets back to normal, the season ends and we kick back off on our offseason next year, we’re going to do a lot more of the things we did this year.”