‘Open 8’ makes for whole new ballgame in Peoria

Centennial's Eric Haney returns an interception of a pass against Notre Dame Prep during the 2018 5A Championship Game on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

A column by Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

The 2019 high school football season already carries more intrigue into the fall than a normal second year of a two-year block.

While the schedules are (almost) the same as in 2018, the calculus has changed. Top teams in 6A, 5A and 4A rarely mingled unless an old neighborhood rivalry brought them together.

But the implementation of an eight-team open division for the playoffs by the Arizona Interscholastic Association has the state’s top programs wondering what bracket they will land in — and which teams will be in their path toward a title.

This new open division will take in the top eight ranked teams in 6A through 4A and pit them in a bracket for an overall state champion. The remaining top 16 teams in 6A, 5A and 4A will play in the typical 16-team brackets for their respective conference titles.

Five teams from the Peoria Unified School District should either be a part of the new open division or received a significant ripple effect as a result of this new setup.

Let’s look at where these teams are at about a month and a half before the start of the season:

Centennial

Clearly one of two culprits that led to the trial year for the open division, Centennial, like Scottsdale Saguaro in 4A, has dominated 5A too thoroughly and been too attractive to players outside of the neighborhood via open enrollment and transfers.

As a result each conference had an overlord. Chandler claimed four of the last five “big school” division titles. The only year the Wolves did not win was 2015, in which Division I — think 6A — was a 17-team super-conference.

Mesa Desert Ridge stunned Chandler in the semifinals that year only to be mauled by a bumped-up Centennial 28-6 in the finals. The Coyotes dropped to 5A the next season and dropped the state final to Gilbert Williams Field 14-6.

The Blackhawks are one of two trophy interlopers during the reign of the big three — and the other was Desert Edge in 2015, when its path in Division III was free of any dynasties. Saguaro is five for five, with four 4A titles and one in a 5A equivalent in 2015.

Enough history. Is the Coyotes’ spot in the 2019 open division a fait accompli? Probably.

Few expect another undefeated season with two-time defending MaxPreps national champion Santa Ana (Calif.) Mater Dei visiting Sept. 6. However, a loss to the Gaels — given their ability and absurdly difficult schedule — should do more for Centennial’s power point ranking than a couple of their wins.

It also should compensate for any drop in strength of schedule at home. Queen Creek Casteel suffered heavy graduation and transfer losses and appears ripe for a fall. Vail Cienega and Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge are rebuilding but regularly are among the best in metro Tucson.

Meanwhile Ironwood, Millennium, Sunnyslope and Sunrise Mountain have enough coming back to improve over 2018. But it is hard to fathom any making the leap to take down the Coyotes. I’d give Millennium a puncher’s chance.

Sunrise Mountain sophomore receiver Ezekiel Marshall (11) looks for some running room as he is tackled by Liberty junior linebacker Josh Filby during the first half of their football game on Aug. 31, 2018. [Ralph Freso/For West Valley Preps]

Liberty

So pencil in Centennial for one spot of the eight. Who else is most likely to make it?

I’d say Chandler, though the Wolves are in a reloading year. The winner of the Aug. 23 Gilbert Perry/Phoenix Pinnacle game has a leg up on the field.

Expect at least one 4A team to join the field, and there are two realistic candidates. Saguaro should roll through its eight Arizona opponents and Las Vegas Faith Lutheran, but San Diego Cathederal Catholic is a tough test and a loss in California could drop the Sabercats to the borderline. Tucson Salpointe Catholic has the easiest path to an undefeated record, with only Desert Edge seeming capable of knocking it off, but 10-0 might not be enough given the Lancers’ schedule.

Back in 6A — where at least half of the open division berths should come from — some fascinating possibilities are afoot. And Liberty is right in the middle of the mix.

The Lions are in the same region as Pinnacle and dark horse Scottsdale Chaparral. Central Region heavyweights Phoenix Desert Vista, Gilbert Highland and Phoenix Mountain Pointe will duke it out for one berth — or maybe two. Mesa Red Mountain is the dark horse in 6A, with the easiest region to boot.

Five years ago, Chandler and Perry’s Premier Region rivals Chandler Hamilton and Phoenix Brophy Prep would have been on the short list for an open division. These erstwhile powerhouses might re-emerge.

And a second 5A team might swoop in — most likely Gilbert Higley or Williams Field.

In the face of all these possibilities, the Lions may be the biggest variable of all. They’re making a trip to the Nevada version of Liberty to bump up their schedule strength — which the game will, win or lose. Games with Mesa Desert Ridge, Pinnacle and Sunrise Mountain went down to the final minute in 2018 and could again.

The Lions are one of about six teams that could go either way — into the open division or near the top of a 6A bracket unlike any other.

Even if it means not having a fairly easy path to a 6A title, coach Mark Smith left no doubt — the “Open 8,” as he called it, is the goal.

Sunrise Mountain

Liberty’s neighbor is not ruling itself out of the elite division. Steve Decker’s team is on the fringe of contention, along with teams like Chaparral, Desert Ridge, Hamilton, Millennium, Notre Dame Prep and Queen Creek.

But the Mustangs would not be a complete shock. To get in position, they have to upset at least two of the three teams that beat them in 2018, Centennial, Liberty and Williams Field.

Of course typing that is far easier than doing it on the field. Let’s operate on the assumption that 9-1 is too much to ask for a team replacing Keegan Freid.

This program still has intriguing possibilities if it remains in the 5A bracket. Things will be different this year, but 2018 provides a simple illustration. No. 1 seed Centennial clobbered Sunrise Mountain 48-0. No. 2 Williams Field held off the Mustangs 23-18 in the regular season and 21-14 in the quarterfinals.

Every team ranked No. 3 through No. 8 in 5A had a similar experience. Assuming Centennial is in the open division, the resulting 5A playoffs are wide open — even more so if the conference’s second most talented team, Higley, jumps up as well.

Will the Mustangs be favored to win a 5A playoffs without their Peoria rival? No. But they’re certainly a team with enough depth to make a run, and possibly shock someone along the way.

Cactus’ Anthony Flores runs with the ball against Peoria on Friday, Oct. 26, 2018 at Peoria High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]

Cactus and Peoria

Now we’re in the territory where the open division is a distant dream. There’s a possibility Cactus maxes out and upsets both Desert Edge and Salpointe, but it’s remote.

Most likely these eternal rivals are hoping for the best possible 4A bracket — one without Saguaro and Salpointe.

Those teams are in a different league than the rest of 4A and show no signs of becoming less of a football magnet in the next couple years.

If one remains in the 4A bracket, they become the obvious favorite. If not, that mantle falls to a hopeful destination school, Desert Edge.

The Cobras’ and Panthers’ main region rival looms as the biggest obstacle to a 4A title game berth — or even a championship. The Scorpions are becoming the gathering place for the Southwest Valley.

Both the Cobras and Panthers have home games against Desert Edge this year, which helps. But with 14 starters returning, and half of them on the NCAA Division I recruiting radar, the team from Goodyear is the clear region favorite.

Do not rule out a state finals appearance from Cactus or Peoria, particularly if both Saguaro and Salpointe make the open division. Both teams have that potential this year though the Cobras go into the season with an edge.

If senior quarterback Conner Cordts has a healthy season, he and senior tailback Anthony Flores form a lethal offensive duo. The Quinones brothers are back to clean things up on defense.

Peoria has solid players returning all over the place, but must replace two Division I recruits and revamp its identity in the process. Juwaun Price and Malachi Potee rolled up more than 3,000 rushing yards behind a line led by Boise State-bound offensive tackle Jacob Golden and three other seniors.

Sophomore tailback Cameron Mack and junior offensive tackle Trey Hendrix are full of potential but will need some help to ensure a consistent ground game.

Despite that hole to patch, the Panthers — and the Cobras for that matter — enter the season with more hope of being on the big stage than they’ve had in years.



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