Humbled, hungry Coyotes head south for state
IF YOU GO
WHAT: 5A Football State Championship Game
WHO: #4 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep vs #2 Centennial
WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2
WHERE: Arizona Stadium, Tucson.
WATCH: Live webcast on AZPreps365.com. shown on tape delay on Fox Sports Arizona at 10 p.m., Wed., Dec. 6; 7 p.m. Fri., Dec. 8; 8:30 p.m. Mon., Dec. 11; 3 p.m. Sun., Dec. 17; 2 p.m. Sun., Dec. 24.
By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Josh Martinez of Scottsdale Independent.com for his contributions on the Notre Dame Prep interviews.
Entering this season, Centennial football was motivated — and a bit humbled — by its 2016 5A title game loss to an undefeated underdog Gilbert Williams Field squad.
Defeating the No. 3 ranked team in the country is great for your program’s recognition and its own national ranking, but not the best way to fend off hubris. Once the Coyotes knocked off Fort Lauderdale, Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas 12-0 on Sept. 29, it was inevitable that some complacency crept in.
Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said in some ways St. Thomas Aquinas was the worst victory, and the first meeting against Liberty on Oct. 27 was the best loss. Players and coaches, he said, no longer felt like they could keep chugging along, pounding opponents into submission. Instead, the 21-19 home loss to Liberty forced the Coyotes look at everything with fresh eyes.
Then Liberty played an even better game in the Nov. 17 5A semifinal, forcing the Coyotes to stretch themselves and pushing them to the brink in the 42-37 classic. Now, No. 2 Centennial (12-1) heads south to Arizona Stadium in Tucson for the state title game at 3:30 p.m. Saturday knowing No. 4 Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (130) is another formidable foe, and detwermined not to take anything for granted.
“(Liberty) helped us fix things and work on variations that we didn’t use, and maybe needed to use. It made us better as far as getting physical and stepping up to the next level,” senior middle linebacker Christian Gomez said. “The first game after St. Thomas Aquinas I noticed a lack of energy. We thought this is just another team we’re going to roll over. Every game should be though of like St. Thomas Aquinas in terms of energy and physicality.”
While this is the last chance for the Coyotes’ senior- dominated lineup, it is the only chance for the similarly senior-laden Saints.
Notre Dame Prep won its region last year but was banned from the playoffs by the Arizona Interscholastic Association because of padded proactices during an unapproved time early in summer.
Coach George Prelock moved up from the freshman squad and his Saints have made up for lost time ever since. Only challenged by Goodyear Desert Edge and Scottsdale Chaparral early in the season, Notre Dame Prep gutted out two tense playoff wins to get here.
The Saints withstood the comeback of No. 5 Queen Creek to win the Nov. 10 quarterfinal 34-31 in overtime. They then faced No. 1 Vail Cienega in Tucson and erased a 27-13 halftime deficit to win 37-34 on Nov. 17.
“They’re excited,” Prelock said. “We’ve come so far and have been through so much. We want to keep working and do our best to get that state championship.”
Taylor said the Saints’ prolific offense — averaging 44 points per game — does not start with a modern spread look like Liberty. Instead, Notre Dame Prep’s base offense is an old favorite of the veteran coach. To win, teams first have to stop a three-back look with twin tailbacks Cole Fisher and Jake Smith flanking 270-plus-pound fullback Victor Annoreno.
“Something that’s unique is that they run a full house (backfield). No one does that anymore. I ran that for about 10 years in Ohio and I love that offense. I think it’s a really good offense,” Taylor said. “I think that is their offense and that is what they want to do. If you start slowing them down, they go to other formations. They widen out. But they come back to it, or they try to.”
Smith emerged as one of the state’s best playmakers in his junior year. In his first 12 games, Smith rushed for 951 yards on 93 carries to complement Fisher (1,234 yards on 187 carries).
But Smith’s abilities as a receiver — an eye popping 951 yards on 29 catches — set him apart. Taylor said Smith lines up everywhere, and frequently leaks out of the full house, sometimes the only receiver.
Those unique twists are one reason to be in favor of two weeks of preparation for the finals — likely a one-time thing since no large stadiums were available during Thanksgiving weekend. All things being equal though, Taylor said he prefers the weekly rythym of the season.
“I would rather not have two weeks. But that’s the way it is and we’ve got to prepare that way. There’s a fine line between trying to get them really ready and burning them out. You want them excited and energetic,” Taylor said. “We (pratciced) at 8 in the morning (the day before Thanksgiving) and then late Friday (Nov. 24), so they had a window there to go to granny’s and relax and be with their families.”
The Notre Dame Prep defense probably will not mind the extra time. After predicating most of its offense on Boise State-bound tailback Zidane Thomas and a massive offensive line with four returning starters, Centennial just gave the Saints more to think about.
In order to beat Liberty, who sent as many as nine defenders in the box in October, the Coyotes had to.
Senior slotback/tailback Alex Escobar’s touches were delivered in more creative ways in the semifinal. Senior linebacker Jordan Ware lined up as a Wildcat quarterback, some times with Thomas and some times without. And quarterback Ruben Beltran was counted on for more play action passes and downfield throws out of a spread, as sophomore receiver Dylan Miller broke out.
“We’re very lucky to have everyone we have in the backfield. It helps us in the run game and pass game. It allows our formations to be different so the defense doesn’t expect us to run up the middle, they have have to figure out what we can do outside too,” senior offensive guard Trevor Renfro said.
That is one key difference from 2016. A massive, physical Desert Edge team put the Coyotes through a brutal quarterfinal last year, but Centennial was not forced out of plan A — riding the Zidane train.
The same went for Cienega in the semifinal. When Williams Field became the first team to truly slow Thomas down, switching gears proved difficult.
And, as Taylor said, 15 penalties in that final cost them dearly. This year, both Liberty games have the entire program ready for anything.
“I think that they feel like we can run Zidane, and if they say, ‘We’re not going to let you do that, we’re going to put eight in the box.’ Good, because we can do something else too. That has given them confidence,” Taylor said. “(Liberty) was a good mental workout for the coaches and the players to make them realize we can do this. All the time, every play.”
The Notre Dame Prep defense does not jump off the page as Williams Field’s unit did last year. The Saints allow an average of 19 points per game but were bruised if not beaten in the last two contests.
But, as Taylor said and his linemen corroborated, it a sound, well balanced unit full of seniors who can stop the run, and rush the passer equally well.
“They flow to the ball very well. They’re really, really fast. That’s something we automatically take in, their linebackers always fill in the gaps,” junior center Carson Keltner said.
If there is one thing these Centennial seniors have learned, it is respect. Renfro said the Saints have played very well in every single game and are a complete team. On Notre Dame Prep’s side, Fisher said the last two weeks have been teriffic preparation for the cauldron of a state final.
“Obviously, Centennial is a very good team but I think we’ll be very prepared.” he said.
The same is true in Peoria.
As Taylor said, being there — this is Centennial’s fourth straight final — teaches a lot, and losing teaches more. He said his kids don’t want that feeling again, not even as much the loss but in knowing they should have played better and didn’t.
“I think our preparation is key in these two weeks. We can’t just wait for it to come. We have to practice hard throughout these two weeks,” junior offensive tackle Jacob Fyffe said.