OPEN 8 LEADS OUT OF STATE: Centennial, Liberty football finalize marquee showdowns

The Centennial football team enters the field before their game against Bishop Gorman on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Arizona’s new football open division concept in the middle of a two-year scheduling block led to open season on the schedule strengthening front.

Luckily for the two best positioned West Valley programs to qualify for this tournament of the state’s top 8 ranked teams — Centennial and Liberty — they happened to have an open date.

Both programs went big, finding marquee out of state opponents to beef up their resume. Centennial’s solution was simple — invite MaxPreps’ No. 1 team nationally the last two years, Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei.

Liberty faced a trickier situation, as the Lions were committed to play a return game at Pat Tillman’s alma mater, San Jose (Calif.) Leland. Once the Arizona Interscholastic Association made the open division concept official, however, the Lions were able to get out of that game and book a trip to higher profile Henderson Liberty (Nev.).

“(Leland) was all ready for us to come and they were good to go. There was that Pat Tillman aspect to it (in 2018) and it was a great atmosphere,” Liberty coach Mark Smith said. “We were ready to go. And then the state came out with that open 8. We were 9-1 last year with a one-point loss and we would have been No. 7 (in the Open Division). All you can do better is be 10-0. We’re trying to be in that open 8. That’s what our program and our community wants. When we approached Leland, they were more than understanding with what we’re trying to do. We were approached by a team in California that we thought we were going to be available to play, but it didn’t work. With Liberty in Nevada, the open date matched our date. And that seemed like a real good fit — we weren’t having to travel across the country, our parents can go and its a Top 100 (national) team.”

Members of the Armed Forces lineup to be recognized for their service before the Pat Tillman Classic against Leland High School (Calif.) on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at Liberty High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
Liberty athletic director Aaron Coughanour said whatever form the rankings formula for this open division takes, schedule strength will be paramount, and this was the Lions’ only chance to increase it.

Centennial athletic director Peter Jelovic said some similar thinking went in to the Mater Dei game scheduled for Sept. 6 at Centennial.

“They have a tough schedule and we looked at that from an advantage standpoint since we’re based on power points,” Jelovic said. “There are certain aspects we can control. We knew we had flexibility with one of our games, so we looked at Mater Dei first. Another factor is it gives us five home games.”

More than that, Jelovic had a tradition to uphold in his first year forming the Coyotes’ schedule. In three of the previous four seasons a name brand program played in Peoria, all set up by then-athletic director Brett Palmer without an outside promoter. Liberty also scheduled its out of state games directly.

Centennial has found scheduling success by cutting out the middle man.

“There’s people out there that try to set things up. They make money through this somehow. I don’t know exactly how they do it,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “The way we have done this with Long Beach Poly, Gorman, Mater Dei and even St. Thomas Aquinas is, we just call them. (Mater Dei) didn’t want much to come – like $4,000 or so.”

On the flip side, Liberty will be only the third Peoria Unified School District football team to travel out of state.

Centennial played McQueen High School to start the 2009 season in Reno, Nevada. However, it was part of the Sollenberger Classic and covered financially by the AIA.

In 2012, Cactus played Bakersfield High School in California as part of a slate of games set up by promoter Brian Hercules.

Coughanour said the Lions’ trip required approval to travel from the school board and an advanced start of a fundraising plan. When the destination changed, the program ended up saving time and money.

“Going to Liberty (Nevada) versus Leland High School in San Jose makes it a lot cheaper because we can take buses. That makes it more doable,” Coughanour said. “It does make it a lot easier because you’re not as limited (in the number of people making the trip). You’re still limited but being in southern Nevada we can take some of our district vehicles where we couldn’t do that to San Jose. We can get more people to the game.”

Taylor did not rule out the Coyotes traveling to another state in the future, but said it is not a priority.

Since that Sollenberger trip a decade ago, every time Taylor examined it, Centennial would have to leave coaches and players behind. That’s a non-starter.

“It gets brought up in our conversation with the coaches and we look at it from the standpoint of, is it going to be advantageous to our program and what is going to be the cost. But we prefer to play at home,” Jelovic said. “I think word of mouth helps. Our booster club is great and our coaches are great. If we didn’t treat people well I think that word would spread pretty quick. We enjoy that process and the curiosity factor of having teams from out of state come play.”

out of state
Centennial’s Jaydin Young (#3) tackles St. Thomas Aquinas’ (Fla.) Elijah Moore (#3) on Sept. 29, 2017 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
He said several conversations took place with Mater Dei right after the 2018 season ended. Jelovic said some other schools were in the mix but the Monarchs always were the top priority.

Now, Jelovic said, people are already asking for tickets.

“When I told my wife we were playing them she said, ‘I think you may be getting too big for your britches,’” Taylor said. “I told her that it was not that I thought we were that good. But can you imagine what it would mean for Mater Dei to come to Centennial High School? I think you need to find out how good you are and the only way is to play teams that are better than you.”

Since Bishop Gorman is the only other elite program in Nevada, Henderson Liberty has become a traveling road show. The Patriots will host the Lions and Chandler. They also visit Miliani Town (Hawaii) and Corona (Calif.) Centennial and have not set the site for their game with  Salt Lake City East on their schedule.

“I think our community, in general, has been supportive of traveling out of state. I think they were supportive of playing Leland last year and would have been so again. But with a very good program like Liberty in Nevada, they’re excited to see what we can do. Our parents want to see us compete with elite programs,” Coughanour said. “I think this is becoming more of the norm in Arizona high school football. A lot of other sports already traveled. It’s just newer for football.”

Smith has coached in the state for more than two decades and remember when Arizona high schools played zero out of state opponents.

A decade ago things began to shift and now an out of state game is a symbol of a local program “making it.”

“The state has grown and the quality of football has grown. It’s become a popular place for colleges to come recruit and has gotten on the national scene a bit. When you’ve got (Arizona) teams playing national games that’s good publicity for the state. And not only are they playing them, they’re winning them,” Smith said. “That’s probably been only in the last six to eight years.”

The Liberty football team wears “Tillman” on the back of their jerseys during the Pat Tillman Classic against Leland High School (Calif.) on Friday, Sept. 14, 2018 at Liberty High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

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