SUNRISE MOUNTAIN MUSTANGS
COACH: Steve Decker (3rd year)
2017 RECORD: 11-2 (4A semifinals)
REGION: 5A Northwest
TOP RETURNEES: Keegan Freid, Sr., QB; Drake Flores, Sr., RB; Jay Anderson, Sr., WR/RB/S; James Hansen, Sr., WR; Jake Newton, Sr., OG; Hunter Olson, Sr., LB; Bo Moore, Sr., LB.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: Nate Duran, Jr., WR; Kaleb Parham, Jr., NG.
Home games in caps
Aug. 17 CENTRAL
Aug. 24 at Williams Field
Aug. 31 at Liberty
Sept. 14 GILBERT
Sept. 21 VERRADO
Sept. 28 at Ironwood
Oct. 5 at Kellis
Oct. 12 at Sunnyslope
Oct. 19 APOLLO
Oct. 26 CENTENNIAL
West Valley Preps
Okay, the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs get it.
They’ll follow up the most successful season in program history with a major jump in 2018 from the 4A Conference to 5A.
They’re not exactly strangers to playing with the big dogs, though.
The Mustangs went 9-1 during the regular season a year ago, with their only setback coming in a three-point loss on the road at Saguaro, last year’s No. 2 state tournament seed and eventual state champion.
And they picked up a huge win along the way against the likes of Liberty, who remains a rival but made its own move to 6A, and who the then-4A Mustangs topped with a clutch win last year that effectively earned Sunrise the No. 1 seed, which eventually led to a Final Four berth.
Don’t forget all that, because the Mustangs certainly haven’t.
“I don’t think it really changed anything, just more competition,” senior wide receiver Jay Anderson, a Top 10 target 4A in 2017 (660 yards in 13 games), said about the 4A-5A jump, from the practice field a couple weeks before the team’s season opener Friday, at home, against Phoenix Central.
After dipping their toes in against the Bobcats, the Mustangs takes the plunge on the road the next two weeks. An Aug. 24 visit to 2016 5A champion Gilbert Williams Field is followed by an Aug. 31 journey two miles up the road to Liberty — where the Mustangs look to add to their two-game streak in the series.
The buzz from a huge season last year is still with the program no matter what conference they call home in 2018.
“They’re excited. They’ve been around the program. They know how it works. We’re gonna work really hard and we’ll be competitive. It’s just a matter of where we’re gonna be (5A Conference),” Sunrise Mountain head coach Steve Decker said nine practices into the fall preseason. “They get it. They know some of the big boys are up there. I think they feel that they can compete with pretty much anybody.”
The Mustangs do not return home until nearly a month after their opener, hosting Gilbert Sept. 14. They close their non-region schedule the next week when Buckeye Verrado visits.
Last year’s 5A 8-seed will feature quarterback Titan Widjaja, one of only nine 5A signal callers to throw 20 or more touchdowns last year.
The Vipers provide another test for an almost completely new defense.
Only one starter returns from a unit that allowed an average of just 15.2 points per game in 13 games last year, including three playoff matchups, not to mention posted three shutouts.
Middle linebacker Hunter Olson is the lone starter back. Fellow senior linebacker Bo Moore started the final five games after a season-ending injury to the graduated Craig Dennis.
But the defense is already feeling the early development of newcomers from a program that saw its JV and freshman teams finish a combined 16-0-1 in 2017.
“A lot of the young kids are stepping up,” Decker said. “It’s a lot of work. It starts in the spring. Building that mentality.”
Sunrise Mountain welcomes back a lot of offensive firepower in 2018.
Leading the way is 6-foot-3 senior quarterback Keegan Freid, whose 39 touchdown passes in 13 games led all of 4A in 2017, and were the fourth most of any quarterback in all of Arizona.
Freid, who verbally committed to Air Force this summer, leads a group of returning skill players, including big-play scatback Drake Flores (1,022 rushing yards, 14 TDs in 2017), Anderson (a three-year starter), and senior wide receiver James Hansen (averaged 27 yards per catch in 12 games last year).
Junior receiver Nate Duran started a few varsity games as a freshman at Shadow Ridge, transferred to Sunrise Mountain last year and — essentially — redshirted behind a deep fleet of receivers. He figures into the mix this year.
Senior guard Jake Newton is the only returning offensive-line starter. Junior guard Matt Johnson also played significant snaps last year and is the biggest Mustang veteran by nearly 50 pounds.“We just play as a team,” Freid said. “We need to focus on those things, and I feel like we’ll play for each other and it’ll be great.”
Sunrise Mountain must team up to succeed in a balanced new region. Apollo and Phoenix Sunnyslope, the most successful two Glendale Union district programs, joined the Northwest Region along with the Mustangs.
After dominating district 4A foes Cactus and Peoria the last three years and holding off late Liberty comebacks the last two years, Sunrise Mountain faces of with the rest of the Peoria Unified School District.Ironwood returns its best players and benefits from a wave a transfers. Kellis was 16-5 the last two years.
And then there is the gold standard for the district and the West Valley. Defending 5A champion Centennial is the final, and toughest, test for the Mustangs in their new home.
Editor’s note: Steve Stockmar can be reached at email@example.com or 623-876-2567. Continue this discussion at yourvalley.net