A column by Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Football teams from the three large-division schools in Surprise probably will not affix a “Playoffs or Bust” sign to their team buses this fall.
But that is the mentality at Shadow Ridge, Valley Vista and Willow Canyon as the season nears. More than a single postseason appearance, these three programs would like 2019 to be remembered as the year they arrived as a force to be reckoned with.
The past two seasons have been mediocre (at best) for the three teams. So the chances of all three teams rising up to earn a playoff trip this fall are somewhere south of 1 percent. Yet each team has a tangible reason for hope that this time around will be different.
Let’s look at the case for improvement at all three schools:
The most consistent program in the city enters with the most concrete case for a jump this season. With 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2016 playoff appearances in the books, an argument can be made that the Monsoon already should have elevated.
Instead, the last two Valley Vista teams finished at .500. The 2018 squad at least kept the losses close, though region defeats by LaJoya, Tolleson and Westview were hard to swallow.
On the flip side, the lineup for those games was full of players who are back for this year. In particular, 10 starters return on offense. This includes the entire starting offensive line led by tackle Andrew Rumary and his five offers from colleges in FBS.
Junior quarterback Burton Delay showed considerable promise by throwing for 379 yards in starting the final two games of 2018. Valley Vista also has two juniors, Nygel Bridges and Liam Kelleher, returning as its top two receiving threats.
Along with talented seniors like Rumary, tailback/slotback Henry Brown and safety Makai Obregon, the juniors are what can make this team different. The Class of 2021 is arguably the best to ever roll through the school and has played well at lower levels, despite providing the varsity with five sophomore starters last year.
Now the question is defense, with only three starters back and no obvious force along the line. If that is answered, the Monsoon could be looking at an 8-2 year, their best since 2012.
It’s hard to see this team knocking off Pinnacle at Desert Vista. The big goal is a first victory over Westview which would, presumably, lead to a first Southwest Region title for Valley Vista.
The Stallions want in on that Southwest Region contendership, despite going 0-5 a year ago. Plus that team lost a large senior class.
So why even mention Shadow Ridge as a possibility?
Because a handful of their best players are coming back. And that group will have reinforcements.
This school on Surprise’s southwest corner has a Class of 2021 that nearly matches its region rival. That group led the 2018 junior varsity team to an 8-0-1 record. Also, that group has virtually zero varsity experience and is a bit of a mystery.
While they get used to next-level speed, the juniors have four senior cornerstones to lean on. Quarterback Kaiden Lansford, offensive tackle Isaiah Mercado, defensive end Jayden Jackson and strong safety Josh Cano were among the team’s best players last fall.
An injury basically knocked out Lansford in the final 2 1/2 games, basically wrecking the Stallions’ chances of a winning record or a region victory. He threw for 1,400 yards in a bit less than eight games, giving the program a dimension in the passing game it never had before.
Also, this school is growing faster than most in Arizona and new houses continue to spring up in its attendance zone. Shadow Ridge blew past 2,400 students last year and this year’s enrollment should top 2,500.
Coach Bob Chappelle said last year that the level of kids coming out for all three levels was the highest in his five years on the Stallions staff. Now those greater numbers should give the varsity more depth and options.
This will not be the program’s best team unless everything goes perfectly. Don’t forget, the Stallions went 9-3 in 2013 and picked up the district’s only playoff win in the last three decades.
The Wildcats do not have a win against their Surprise rivals since 2015 or a playoff berth since 2011. They’re clearly third on this list.
And Willow Canyon might not be on the list at all under normal circumstances.Everything changed, though, in November when David received a choice rock for his slingshot.
Scottsdale Chaparral star tailback Darvon Hubbard transferred to his neighborhood school and will become the most talented player to don the silver and blue once the Wildcats opener kicks off Aug. 23 at Phoenix Camelback.
Doubt me? Consider this — Hubbard decommitted from Ohio State after Urban Meyer retired this winter. He still has offers from Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Michigan, Michigan State and Tennessee to name a few teams you’ll watch on ESPN this year.
From interviews with him, teammates and coaches, the star has bought in to Willow Canyon’s approach. He allows the rest of the team to slide into roles they are more suited for.
After years of hoping scatbacks can burst into the open field, the Wildcats have a 205-pound elite player to base their offense around. Senior Jonathan Hagestad can fill a backup tailback/slotback/cornerback description instead of taking 10-plus handoffs a game.
Senior quarterback Josh Ormond can complement Hubbard instead of having to provide the bulk of the offense.
And a young offensive line knows if it gets its assignments right, they can make a hole for someone who can go the distance.
Plus there is room to improve. Beating Shadow Ridge or Valley Vista will be difficult, but there is room for movement in the 5A Desert West Region behind defending champ and heavy favorite Millennium.
All this makes Willow Canyon a fascinating team to follow this fall.