West Valley Preps
Football fans across the state gave Centennial credit this spring for scheduling national top 5 program St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale, Florida — three-time defending 7A state champion in the football-mad state.
The Raiders brought along a 3-0 record, a defense that had allowed only a field goal this year, more than 20 players with Division I scholarship offers, a coaching staff featuring former NFL stars and a roster with several sons of NFL players.
Soon-to-be nationally ranked Centennial did more than give this powerhouse a fight. The Coyotes matched the juggernaut defensive stop for defensive stop, made fewer mistakes and shocked the high school football world by winning 12-0.
“On our defense there’s like two or three stars and a bunch of no names. The no names are really starting to make names for themselves and people are going to know who they are,” Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said. “I give a lot of credit to the defensive coaching staff. They stayed up really late and saw every play of every game that they’ve played. (Aquinas) has a good philosophy. ‘We are better than you are. We’re just not going to mess ourselves up. We’re just going to play and beat you.'”
In the process of shutting out the Raiders, Centennial (6-0) made sure Arizona’s best teams would not be shut out against elite out of state competition. Chandler, Phoenix Mountain Pointe, Scottsdale Chaparral and Scottsdale Saguaro all fell in marquee matchups. To be fair, Chandler lost to the one team in Florida that is ranked above Aquinas — national No. 1 IMG Academy.
Unlike these Florida powerhouses, Centennial is not full of NCAA Division I prospects. But it never showed Friday night, particularly with an unheralded defense that just posted its third shut out.
Yards were incredibly hard to come by. Centennial finished with 163 — 156 of that on the ground. Aquinas mustered only 203 yards — 156 passing.
While the “name” players on the Coyotes defense — end Jacob Franklin, linebacker Jordan Ware and cornerback Dominique Hampton — made big plays, this shutout was built on the backs of unheralded members of the front seven and emerging sophomores.
Junior defensive tackle Eli Tabanico had the Coyotes first sack and rotated with junior Tyler Watkins and sophomore Xavier Garcia on the interior. All have fire plug builds and are under 6 feet tall.
They led the charge against a team accustomed to imposing its will, limiting the Raiders to 47 yards on 20 carries and getting the visitors to all but abandon the ground game midway through the second quarter.
“Our defense has been getting better every week. The little guys inside … everyone told them those guys were going to be a lot bigger than them. But that’s an advantage. Everyone kept telling them to stay low,” Taylor said. “I’ve been there before, when you think you’re going to do well at something and all of a sudden, it’s not working. Nothing seems to be working — we’re supposed to be winning this game and we’re not. All of a sudden, the game’s over.”
Junior end Connor Knudsen, a move in from Marana who is also 5-10, came up with two huge second-half sacks. The second came midway through the fourth quarter and knocked the Raiders back after they finally neared the red zone.
Facing fourth and 12 at the Coyote 33, junior quarterback Curt Casteel tossed a middle screen to Elijah Moore and the defense corralled him after 10 yards.
“(Defensive coordinator Andrew) Taylor called a great blitz. Their offensive line was really confused and I got free,” Knudsen said. “We’ve been preparing for this since the spring. We’ve had game plan sheets for six weeks and it feels great to execute it and do everything for the coaches who worked so hard.”
The defense had to be nearly perfect because the Raiders mostly put the clamps on the vaunted Coyote running game. Boise State-bound senior Zidane Thomas burst for 27 yards on his first carry, and was bottled up for 30 yards combined on his next 20 runs.
Senior slotback/tailback Alex Escobar gained 25 on the Coyotes second drive, plus a face mask. He then ran for five more, plus another face mask. That led to senior Xavier Rojas’ field goal, the only scoring of the first three quarters.
The game settled into a stalemate dominated by two lightning fast, hard hitting defenses.
“That was probably the first time they’ve been behind all year. Their kids — whoa — they really hit. We had some too. On a kickoff Christian Gomez made a hit and I was clear down on the other end talking to somebody. I heard that hit and turned around,” Taylor said. “They had some guys that … you can see why they have offers. But some of our guys should have offers too.”
The airtight Aquinas defense forced another three and out and the visitors got the ball back at their own 45. Casteel scrambled for 17 yards on third down with 3:37 remaining. Then, he hit sophomore Marcus Rosemy for eight more to the Coyotes 22.
An incompletion and illegal shift penalty — the Raiders had 13 penalties for 130 yards in all — set up third and 7 at the 27. Sophomore safety Jaydin Young broke on Casteel’s pass to break it up. And senior safety Devin Butler sacked Casteel on a fourth down blitz.
Young and Butler were part of a stellar secondary, along with Washington-bound corner Hampton. Taylor said junior Kieran Clark, senior Alex Escobar and junior Cire Fields II also stepped up in coverage.
“We were expecting the outside zone but they just went to the passing game. Our secondary played a hell of a game. Coach Taylor had a great game plan and we executed it,” Knudsen said.
Another Raiders face mask penalty gave the Coyotes a chance to ice the game on third and one from their 44. The Centennial offensive line got it’s best push of the night and Thomas gained first down yardage — then he did what Zidane Thomas usually does.
Five Aqunas defenders appeared to have him walled off, but Thomas kept his legs churning, ducked under their hands and somehow burst in the clear for the 56-yard clinching touchdown.
“It’s no secret that Florida is filled wth probably the best football talent in the country. But we worked hard. We knew we had to play a perfect game. And we almost did. We limited our mistakes,” Thomas said. “The o-line knew all we needed was a first down to end the game. They gave me a great push. With the great push came the hole and with the hole came the touchdown. We know they play isn’t over to the whistle blows and we kept pushing.”
Thomas got the highlight of the night twice. The first came in the pregame when his mother, Hillary Barrett, surprised him. She lives in Tampa and had not seen him play in person since his Pop Warner days.
The whole night had a celebratory feel, from the national TV cameras to the field with an American flag version of the Coyotes logo and the Arizona flag design incorporated into both end zones.
About 40 former players lined the Centennial sideline, from more than two decades of Coyote football. Among them were alumni like Ronnie Watkins, Jarell Barbour, Jimmie Lewis, Zach Hoffpauir, Anthony Ramirez, John Rincon and Bozton Sanders. Taylor said they laid the foundation for today’s teams to play marquee teams from across the country.
“All of those kids have built the program to this point,” Taylor said.
Score by quarters
St. Thomas Aquinas 0 0 0 0 – 0
Centennial 3 0 0 9 – 12
C – Xavier Rojas 33 FG
C – Rojas 28 FG
C – Zidane Thomas 56 run (kick blocked)
STA – Centennial shut down the Raiders playmakers, but Elijah Moore had the most success with 6 catches for 66 yards. Take your pick on the Aquinas defense, they allowed 156 yards.
C – Thomas broke free twice against the best high school defense he will ever face, finishing with 113 yards on 22 carries. The whole Centennial defense was terrific particularly unheralded junior Connor Knudsen and sophomores Xavier Garcia and Jaydin Young (though you’re going to be hearing about Dedrick’s little brother plenty in the next few years).