5A football final preview: #3 Notre Dame Prep vs #1 Centennial

Centennial safety Jaydin Young breaks up a pass intended for Notre Dame Prep’s Jake Smith during the 2017 5A state title game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Both key players return for the finals rematch Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium. [West Valley Preps file]

WHAT: 5A football state final, #3 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (13-0) vs. #1 Centennial (13-0)
WHEN: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1
WHERE: Sun Devil Stadium, Arizona State University, Tempe
VISIT: West Valley Preps on Saturday for a recap of this game

By Richard Smith and Josh Martinez
Independent Newsmedia

To a man, Centennial football coaches and players believe the Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep team they will play in Saturday’s 5A state title game at Sun Devil Stadium is better than the one the Coyotes defeated for the trophy last year.

The Saints’ return would have been a major surprise in August, since they lost all but three 2017 starters to graduation. Yet the No. 3 seed is once again 13-0 and booked its title trip by holding off a late comeback from No. 2 Gilbert Williams Field in a 21-14 semifinal win Nov. 17.

“They really jelled well. To have to deal with basically a new starting lineup, they’ve really played well together. They came out of that hole that most people tried to put them in having all those new starters. They’re undefeated for a reason,” Centennial senior slotback Jeiel Stark said.

The problem for the Saints and the rest of Arizona? Centennial’s 2018 team has been demonstrably better than its 2017 team all fall.

Other than a 13-7 victory against Las Vegas (Nev.) megapower Bishop Gorman Aug. 31 — ironically Bishop Gorman plays for the Nevada state title at almost the same time as Centennial’s game Saturday — the Coyotes have not been pushed.

The Coyotes outscored their other 12 opponents, all Arizona 5A teams, 551-71. And these were not pushovers.

Centennial dominated quarterfinal teams from Sunrise Mountain, Queen Creek Casteel, Goodyear Millennium and Vail Cienega (twice). In its 5A semifinal victory Nov. 17, Richard Taylor’s team spotted the No. 5 Gilbert Higley a touchdown, then followed with 48 unanswered points to claim a 48-13 rout.

“Just like last year, they’re big, they’re physical, they’re well-coached. Their defense flies around the ball and their offense pushes people around. They’ve got playmakers and skill guys that can really get the ball in the end zone and make big plays,” Notre Dame Prep head coach George Prelock said. “They are the staple of 5A. They’ve done a great job and there’s a reason why they’re in this position year in and year out.”

But even Centennial’s previous six state champions were rarely this dominant throughout the course of a season — save for perhaps the undefeated 2006 and 2008 champs.

Other than the Gorman game, the closest thing to adversity experienced by this team probably was that initial Higley touchdown two weeks ago. So the veterans are digging into recent seasons for a frame of reference.

“I think the captains have been through a lot of adversity in our sophomore and junior years. We got beat by Desert Edge and we weren’t expecting it. It’s not like we haven’t been thrown into those type of situations,” senior center Carson Keltner said. “This year we haven’t except for once, but I think we can handle it.”

Centennial’s Davon Fountain runs with the ball against Higley during a 5A semifinal game on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
While that dominant regular season makes the Coyotes prohibitive favorites, it has been built by this team’s unique ability to not be satisfied with a play, a game or even its season up to this point.

Taylor said thus far Centennial has prepared for the title game with the same approach as the previous 13 — other than the extra half-week of practice.

“They know they have to kill the noise. They know that some people are picking us and saying we’re going to beat them again. They know that nothing comes free. You earn it by preparing. And I think they are preparing well, both by studying their 37-page defensive scouting report and film,” Taylor said. “I don’t see them feeling entitled and going through the motions. They’re working hard.”

Two equal and opposing forces are at work. The quality of players across the board discourages complacency.

“Competing in practice against our defense has helped us ridiculously. Iron sharpens iron,” Keltner said.

And a mutual sense of respect in each other’s abilities discourages selfishness.

“We’re a family, and last year we were as well. Everybody respects each other and we’re a lot tighter,” Stark said. “We have great players across the board. We all have a role and everybody has a pretty equal role in winning games. People are able to step back and not make it about themselves.”

This game is easier to maintain that mentality — and not just due to the trophy. The Coyotes have taken note of the Saints’ improvements across the board, particularly on defense.

Notre Dame Prep enters allowing just under 20 points per game, which is actually a point more than at this point in 2017. But this year, the Scottsdale private school proved it can win high-level playoff games with defense.

The Saints squeaked by Queen Creek 34-31 and Cienega 37-34 to reach last year’s final. Conversely, they’re back after a 14-0 shutout of Millennium and a goal line stand against Williams Field.

“That linebacker, the MMA guy, he can run and hit. But I would say their whole defensive line has been pretty stout all year long. Their defensive backs play well together,” Taylor said. “All three phases of the game are polished. Their special teams do stuff that make you prepare and take time away from other things. You’ve got to work on a swinging gate, because they not only line up in it, they’ve got five different plays in it. They’re a better version of what they were last year.”

Stark said they have a great linebacking corps, better than last year. And it’s led by “the MMA guy,” junior linebacker Brock Locnikar and his 118 solo tackles.

Carson Keltner said the Saints defensive line was pretty good last year, but the new-look unit came back bigger and stronger in 2018.

And even though most of the lineup is new, the moment should not be too big for Notre Dame Prep — as it appeared to be last December in Tucson.

“It’s helped. You’re not in awe of everything. Like I said, you just try and take it one day at a time. Some of the kids that went to media day last year, we only had one of them return but the other kids have played a prominent role that were there this year. They’ve taken everything in stride. They’re more worried about coming out to practice and working hard,” Prelock said.

In the 2017 final, a 21-point second quarter put the Coyotes in the drivers seat.This year’s team has shown the same ability to blow a game wide open with a first-half spurt, scoring 21 first-quarter points on Higley after then Knights’ opening drive.

“We can’t let the game get away from us. Last year after the first quarter, it was tied at 0-0 and they scored like that and by halftime, it was 21-0. We dug ourselves a hole in that game that we couldn’t climb out of,” Notre Dame senior wide receiver Jake Smith said. “I think that’s what we have to do because they’re a phenomenal team and we’re going to have to play our best. If mistakes happen, we’re going to have to limit those mistakes to as few as we can.”

Smith remains the Saints’ great equalizer. The University of Texas-bound multi-hypen threat has 1,070 yards and 22 touchdowns on 58 catches and 751 yards and 14 touchdowns on 100 carries.

He’s surrounded by tall targets on intermediate routes like seniors Zack Gray and Luke Roberts. New quarterback Jake Farrell has thrown for 3,230 yards and 41 touchdowns.

And junior tailback Dominick Mastro allowed Smith to cut back on his carries this year. Mastro has rushed for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns behind the Saints big, talented and young line.

“(Dominic Mastro) has taken on a lot of the load of running. They use (Smith) in a lot of different ways on offense. He is more productive and taking less hits, which I think is pretty smart. He is still phenomenal. He’s double covered and goes up between people and gets the ball — and he comes down on balance and they fall down, and he runs for a touchdown. He’s a very gifted guy,” Taylor said.

Centennial is missing an early season starter, as senior linebacker M.J. Walker has been out for the playoffs with an injury. Junior Seth Lane and senior A.J. Jackson have filled in — with Jackson bringing a safety’s coverage abilities to the linebacker spot.

Jackson is one of several seniors competing with Coyote legends. In their freshman year of 2015, today’s seniors saw another class lead the program to consecutive state titles.

“I’d kind of like to leave our footprint as seniors,” Keltner said.

Centennial junior A.J. Jackson returns a punt against Notre Dame Prep in the 2017 5A state title game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. [West Valley Preps file]

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