2019 Preps football preview: Cactus

Cactus senior safety Nicc Quinones covers a Boulder Creek receiver during a scrimmage on Aug. 21 at Cactus High in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

2018 RECORD: 8-4 (4A second round)
REGION: 4A West Valley
COACH: Joseph Ortiz (Second year)
OFFENSE: Pistol spread
TOP RETURNEES: Conner Cordts, Sr., QB; Anthony Flores, Sr., RB; Travis Combs, Sr., C/LB; Jacob Flahrety, Sr., LB/TE; Riley Davies, Jr., DE/TE; Nate Quinones, Sr., LB; Nicc Quinones, Sr., S.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: Ethan Price, Jr., DT (transfer-Liberty); Will Galvan, Fr., CB.

Home games in caps

Sept. 6 at Ironwood
Sept. 20 at Salpointe
Oct. 4 at Deer Valley
Oct. 18 at Lake Havasu
Oct. 25 at Coconino

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

The bridge year is over and a new era of Cactus football is taking shape.

Four assistant coaching holdovers from Hall of Famer Larry Fetkenhier’s staff stayed for Joseph Ortiz’s first year, then left following an 8-4 season in 2018.

Five new coaches are in their place, and the newest hire is getting the most attention. Mason Crossland will coach the Cobras quarterbacks three years after he wrapped a career passing for 9,152 yards and 112 touchdowns at Gilbert Higley — in Joseph Ortiz’s offense.

“We had to get rid of some coaches that just couldn’t get on board with the transition and my coaching philosophy, which is fine. But this staff has become really close and we brought in some new faces with a lot of experience. Night and day. We hang out as a staff all the time on the weekends with our families,” Ortiz stated in an email. “With Mason he knows the offense as well as I do. He was my quarterback for three years when I was the offensive coordinator at Higley. So we have a great relationship and are on the same page. So to have someone that understands what I’m trying to do every play is huge for the program and the development of our quarterbacks.”

Crossland has plenty to work with in senior Conner Cordts, who flashed a dangerous deep ball when not battling injuries last season.

Cordts said he is healthy, more comfortable in the scheme and thriving under Crossland’s tutelage.

“Not that I’ve run the offense for a year-and-a-half, I know what reads to check down to. The transition is complete,” Cordts said.

Joe Chacon and Matthew Ledesma (defensive line) and Ralph Cube and Francisco Rangel (offensive line) are the other new Cactus coaches.

But the trajectory of this team figures to be determined by the veteran coach of the staff, defensive coordinator Brian Belles.

His unit returns two tackling machines in Nate Quinones at linebacker and his brother Nicc at safety. Ortiz said the Quinones boys, along with Cordts and tailback Anthony Flores, are the heart of the team.

“They have matured as leaders more than anything. They know exactly what we expect as a program and last year everyone was learning a new style. This year its just getting better everyday instead of learning. They have all improved physically all have put on extra muscle and inches. They are all so smart on the field and it will show once we start playing on Fridays,” Ortiz stated.

Senior Riley Davies is back after showing glimpses as a 220-pound defensive end. And that’s about it.

So Belles and Ortiz called on a veteran offensive line for reinforcements.

“Travis Combs, a first team all region center will start at middle linebacker for us as well. He’s a great kid and great leader. Jacob Flaherty will transition from first team all region tackle to middle linebacker and tight end. He will be the signal caller for the defense. Jacob is very smart and physical,” Ortiz stated.

Inexperienced players impressed with how they picked up Belles’ 3-4 scheme in the offseason. Senior Jon Buchannan grew into a starting defensive tackle and sophomore Justin Holmes may break out as an undersized end.

“John Buchannan has stepped up big time this year. We have a sophomore, Justin Holmes, and he’s an animal on the d-line this year,” Quinones said.

Then the defensive line received an unexpected boost when 260-pound junior defensive tackle Ethan Price transferred in from Liberty in early August.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association cleared Price’s hardship request and he will be eligible the entire season.

“Ethan Price from Liberty won his appeal and will start week one, very good defensive tackle. (Linebacker) Ata Teutupe from Moon Valley has to sit out five but will be a great addition to the defense week 6. Gabe Reyes from Westview will be a great addition to the secondary and as a back up tailback in week 6 as well,” Ortiz stated.

Even with all these transfers, the most impressive defensive newcomer might be a freshman. Ortiz called cornerback Will Galvin an “absolute stud,” and said he will start from game one.

Sophomore Ryan Griswold will start at free safety. Flahrety is impressed with the new-look defense.

“Everybody understands what we’re doing at practice now. This year we’re going to be a lot better,” Flahrety said.

While Cordts and Crossland’s addition may garner the hype make no mistake, Flores is the lifeblood of the offense. Ortiz said he is capable of a 2,000-yard season.

He’ll have some familiarity with the line as Combs, 330-pound junior Alex Ticala and Flahrety are back — even if Flahrety moved over. The coach is comfortable with the new linemen too.

“This group has improved tremendously. Last year we had to just get the scheme and lost out on a lot of technique. This year we can focus on technique and physicality because they know their assignments,” Ortiz stated. Junior Max Sear and sophomore Mason Cullop will fill into the starting OL and are very strong and physical kids. Should be a much improved o-line from top to bottom, with better coaching to boot.”

Cordts’ targets are mostly new. Junior Antonio Pratt, only played half the 2018 season and will start in the slot. Justin Gomez will be the other slot. Sophomore Dawood Montejano will start at outside receiver.

Cactus has an interesting perspective on the open division. Should it run the table and knock off teams like Desert Edge, Peoria and Tucson Salpointe Catholic, the Cobras could be the surprise team in the final eight.

If not, though, Cactus may be looking at a wide-open 4A bracket without six-time defending state champ Scottsdale Saguaro or Salpointe in it.

“We’ve kind of talked about it both ways. If we can run the table and be one of the best teams, then why not go play in the open division. But it also comes down to, we have the powerhouses like Salpointe and SagU. If they bump up, it’s anybody’s game in 4A,” Cordts said.

Ortiz, like many other coaches this time of year, must remind his guys that to make those three games huge showdown, Cactus has to beat several other quality teams first.

“We tell the boys that to get where we want to get to we cannot over look any team. Our goal is to be playing in the 4A championship and we play a lot of solid teams. Ironwood and Estrella Foothills are both extremely talented and well coached. We have a tough schedule and we have to focus night in and night out. So when we have those big games we are consistent,” he stated.

Cactus’ Conner Cordts throws a pass during a scrimmage against Boulder Creek on Wednesday, Aug. 21 at Cactus High School in Glendale. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.