SUNRISE MOUNTAIN MUSTANGS
COACH: Steve Decker (fourth year)
2018 RECORD: 8-4 (5A quarterfinals)
REGION: 5A Northwest
KEY RETURNEES: Alex Gianoli, Sr., QB; Kyle Copley, Sr. WR; Nate Duran, Sr., WR; Matt Johnson, Sr., OG; Kaleb Parham, Sr., NG; Justin Wilda, Sr., LB; Tommy Arnold, Jr., LB, Elijah Anderson, Jr., CB.
TOP NEWCOMER: John Hart, Soph., TE; Jared Pellerin, Sr., S.
Home games in caps
Aug. 23 at Central
Aug. 30 WILLIAMS FIELD
Sept. 6 LIBERTY
Sept. 20 at Gilbert
Sept. 27 at Verrado
Oct. 4 IRONWOOD
Oct. 11 KELLIS
Oct. 18 SUNNYSLOPE
Oct. 25 at Apollo
Nov. 1 CENTENNIAL
West Valley Preps
Unlike most established programs that regularly win eight or more games a season, Sunrise Mountain football entered the offseason more sure about its upcoming junior class than its seniors.
At times, the 2018 Mustangs started as many as nine sophomores in a varsity game. That same group went undefeated as freshmen in 2017, including a 34-32 win at powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro.
However, during spring ball and the summer, coach Steve Decker saw his Class of 2020 take charge. The coach said he is impressed with the entire group, but quarterback Alex Gianoli, offensive guard Matt Johnson, nose guard Kaleb Parham and linebacker Justin Wilda stand out.
“Honestly, I think this is the best leadership we’ve had in a couple years. The seniors are doing everything right in the summer. It’s a good quality group,” Decker said. “Kaleb Parham, Matt Johnson, Justin Wilda are all stepping up. We only have four captains but all of the seniors are leading well.”
And this time around, the seniors have a better idea what they are leading the team into. Sunrise Mountain’s return to 5A after nine seasons away was successful at 8-4. But it was not smooth.
The star-crossed 2018 season peaked when seven players — including five starters and several seniors — were suspended for the sixth game at Ironwood. Sophomores and juniors back for this year shined on that night, teaming with Air Force-bound senior quarterback Keegan Freid to lead a 50-24 rout.
That was the Mustangs’ fifth consecutive wild game following a 23-18 loss at 5A semifinalist Gilbert Williams Field, a painful 49-43 defeat down the street at Liberty, a ludicrous 74-57 victory over Gilbert and a 20-19 squeaker over Buckeye Verrado.
Things settled down after that, although Centennial dominated Sunrise Mountain like all the other 5A playoff teams it faced. That game, the Liberty loss and a 21-14 second-round playoff loss to Williams Field were the team’s “welcome to 5A” moments.
Liberty’s ground game sported a 313 to 163 advantage in yards over Sunrise Mountain’s, while at Centennial the margin was 296 to 23. And the second time around the Black Hawks pounded the Mustangs with 392 rushing yards while surrendering only 30.
“We’re concentrating only having a little but more physical ground game. And just being a little bit tougher of a defense, to stop the run too. Some of the teams we play, we have to be like that or we’ll get run over,” Decker said.
Leveling the playing field at the line of scrimmage is more of a necessity. Sunrise Mountain stayed in the Liberty game and both battles at Williams Field largely thanks to Freid’s ability to create.
Decker said Gianoli can continue the Mustangs dual-threat quarterback tradition. Gianoli’s predecessors, Freid and Chase Cord, got him up to speed during the spring.
Keep in mind though, Freid rang up 3,677 yards of total offense last year and 3,659 in 2017, while Cord had 2,875 in 2016 after an ACL injury and 4,232 yards total offense in 2015 before it. Those are incredibly high standards for anyone to live up to, and Gianoli did not throw a pass last year while starting at free safety.
“At the end of the day, I wish I could have gotten him some more reps last year but he helped us where we had a need. Being such a good athlete, he was okay back there,” Decker said. “The day we lost to Williams Field in the playoffs, he started working at QB again.”
Ultimately, Gianoli believes his one-season excursion into the secondary will make him a smarter, tougher quarterback.
“Playing defense helped me out in two ways. Toughness was one of them. Secondly, getting to know what defenses look like and what they try to design — and how I can read it better,” Gianoli said.
He also has a ton of targets. Four returning receivers started multiple games last year — seniors Kyle Copley, Nathan Duran and Jackson Underhill. Sophomores Josh Hart and J.J. Washington are too promising to sit or play JV and junior tailback Bryce Cord is almost as productive of a receiver as he is a runner.
These receivers also complement each other. Marshall is an emerging deep threat, Duran handles the mid-range and Copley is a tough cover from the slot. Hart gives the team a big target it lacked last year.
“Route running is a skill, it’s an art. Brad Chase, our wide receivers coach, has really worked a ton with them in the offseason,” Decker said. “And we have a kid who’s a sophomore that is going to be a Division I football player. He’s 6-4 and 215 pounds. He’s playing h-back, which will be our tight end/wing style role.”
Gianoli said Duran and Johnson are not only coming back as better players this season. They have taken responsibility for leading their position groups.
Johnson is the most experienced and biggest lineman returning at near 280 pounds. Two other starters are back, juniors Robbie Maple at center and Mason Tamayo at guard.
“He took all of this time in the summer to mentor the other guys, like Mason Tamayo and Robbie Maple. He really helped them out and we’ve all come together because we play as a family,” Gianoli said.
Parham, the only other true big man on the roster, has likewise made the defensive line his responsibility. He is about 30 pounds heavier pushing the 270-pound mark and set to tie up more blockers.
Junior William Howald is more of a prototypical lean defensive end. Wilda blossomed into a pass rushing linebacker the second half of last season.
He is surrounded by promising juniors. Wilda said inside linebacker Tommy Arnold already acts like a leader. Owen Thomas picked up 43 tackles last year and Decker said Micah Scott had an impressive offseason.
“It’s pretty amazing seeing how they develop and how much faster they can read plays and react,” Wilda said. “With being bigger, they can actually fill a hole better now and take on blockers better.”
Safety is stacked despite Gianoli’s departure. Jared Pellerin did not play last year but the senior stood out to his teammates and coaches during the summer. He said another junior, Aydan Guenther, will rotate in.
Junior cornerback Elijah Anderson started all of his sophomore season.
Decker and his players have set qualifying for the open division as their main 2019 goal. While getting there will not be easy, turning the tables on at least two of their three regular season losses, to Centennial, Liberty and Williams Field, would get Sunrise Mountain on the short list.
If this program grows from dark horse to a statewide contender, it will be on the back of an improved defense.
“This year’s defense is a lot faster. We have a lot more speed and a lot tighter of a connection,” Wilda said.