5A football semifinal preview: #5 Higley vs. #1 Centennial

Centennial senior tailback Davon Fountain (20) stiff arms a Sunrise Mountain player Oct. 26. The Coyotes face Gilbert Higley in a 5A semifinal Friday night. [Ralph Freso for West Valley Preps]

What: 5A football semifinal #5 Gilbert Higley (9-3) vs. #1Centennial (12-0)
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Willow Canyon High School,17901 W. Lundberg St., Surprise.
Recaps: Visit West Valley Preps Saturday morning fora recap of this game, and comeback Saturday night for a story on the Valley Christian-Northwest Christian 3A semifinal.

Richard Smith and Josh Martinez
West Valley Preps

For a typical defending state champion, the semifinals is the time when the goal of repeating turns serious.

But this Centennial team, more than most of the school’s five previous defending champs, has taken every opponent seriously — and thoroughly dominated all but one of them as a result.

Other than one close call against perennial Nevada champion Bishop Gorman, the Coyotes have taken their opponents apart by the average score of 46 points per game to 5 points allowed per contest. Those numbers came against six 5A playoff teams — two of whom the Coyotes faced twice.

“They realize that it’s not about the opponent we are playing. It’s about us, and how we do what we’re supposed to do. They seem to really buy into that,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “We have a lot of running backs, which could be bad in same cases where people say, ‘Hey, I’m not getting mine. Why is he getting more touches.’ That seems to be okay with the kids. The players seem to be fine with (sharing carries).”

The lone remaining caveat? None of their prior opponents are still in the playoffs.

If Centennial (12-0) is to continue its roll to a repeat, it will be against tougher competition. No. 5 seed Gilbert Higley (9-3) is the first significant road block in Friday’s semifinal, with 2016 champion Gilbert Williams Field (11-1) and 2017 runner up Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (12-0) looming on the other side of the bracket.

Higley is new to 5A, but not to the later stages of the playoffs. The Knights reached the 4A semifinals each of the past two seasons and are eager to make their first trip to a state final of any kind since 2005.

“They’re a great team. They’ve been knocking on the door for the past two years in 4A so they’re hungry. They’ve got a great D-line with a lot of big guys up front who have a lot of offers and they’re really impressive. Offensively, they have some guys with great skill that can make plays — like Spencer Brasch. We have to take the game serious and attack the game like we have every other game,” Centennial senior slotback Jeiel Stark said.

That said, the rest of 5A realizes what they are up against with this particular kingpin.

One key is to not be awed by the Coyotes or their reputation.

“We focus on ourselves. We can’t worry about them. We need to stick together as a team and execute our play calls,” Higley coach Eddie Zubey said.

And, as Taylor and his players said, the Knights present some unique challenges with their passing game and defensive line.

Senior defensive end Logan Maxwell, junior defensive end Jason Harris and senior defensive tackle Ty Robinson have received offers from NCAA “power five” schools — and have combined for 30 sacks this season. With five sacks of his own, 255-pound junior defensive tackle Jackson Solomon isn’t half bad, either.

“They’re all big and all very active. So far they haven’t stunted or blitzed a lot. I think they just say, ‘These are our guys. We’re not going to get ourselves in bad situations on the back end.’ They’ve been right so far. They’ve had a very good season,” Taylor said.

It adds up to the stiffest challenge for Centennial’s young offensive linemen since Bishop Gorman on Aug. 31. Senior three-year starters Jacob Fyffe and Carson Keltner have seen it all.

Now, sophomores Oscar Abundis Jr. and Caiden Miles, and junior George Roeder are battle tested. As Taylor said, they do not play like sophomores anymore.

“They’ve grown a lot during the season. They play really hard and understand their responsibilities. I think Carson and Fyffe really help them out, being three-year starters. The young guys are doing great,” Stark said.

The other burden will be on the defensive backs. Higley throws more than runs, and is startlingly more effective through the air than on the ground. University of California-bound quarterback Brasch has thrown for 3,381 yards and 44 touchdowns this year.

Brasch also has 517 rushing yards, and is the only Knight with more than 300.

The south Gilbert school involves multiple receivers, and junior Isaiah Eastman has played a larger role since the Mesa Desert Ridge transfer became eligible at midseason. But the top two targets — by far — are seniors Coleman Owen (88 catches, 1,372 yards, 21 touchdowns) and Jaxen Gibbons (51 catches, 765 yards, 12 touchdowns).

Taylor said Higley’s approach is similar to Sunrise Mountain and Sunnyslope, but the Knights have more quality athletes to deploy across the field.

However, the Coyotes are overflowing with quality athletes, starting with twin tailback/safety stars Tawee Walker and Jaydin Young.

“It’s good we have other backs because Tawee and Jaydin are going to be running a lot. (Higley) runs a fast-paced game. They’re running around looking for the signal and they’ll be up at the line of scrimmage, looking to run the next play,” Taylor said. “I think we’ll be tested and pushed. Our defensive line need to make sure we’re getting pressure, not to just allow him to sit back there and go through his read progression.”

As Taylor hints, his two leading rushers may have to concentrate more on their defensive responsibilities more in this game. In that case, though, Centennial has backs like Stark and Millennium

Centennial’s Jeiel Stark runs with the ball after catching a pass against Cienega on Friday, Sept. 7, 2018 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps]
transfer Davon Fountain that would start at many schools.

Add in junior Marc Jacob and the balance is enviable. Five rushing threats with 47 to 93 carries, and 373 to 775 yards.

“I looked at the stats and it’s amazing what (offensive coordinator Ian) Comes has done in giving them all the same number of touches. I think they appreciate that, that we’re not out for individual stats,” Taylor said.

That mutual respect and shared drive are the special ingredient of this team’s dominance. Stark said the playmakers feed off each other — and you can add senior A.J. Jackson and junior Eric Haney to that list of two-way threats.

With elite senior cornerback Kieran Clark and big junior receiver Dyelan Miller also in the mix, the perimeter options are virtually limitless on both sides of the ball.

“I can come in and play my role. I don’t have to do everything. Everybody steps up and does their part. I don’t feel like we have any weaknesses on our team. Nobody complains about anything. We have so many talented athletes on our team,” Walker said.

Zubey said to combat this Centennial team, winning the turnover battle is imperative.

“They have a very good defense and can run the ball very well. We will need to execute on offense and not turn the ball over. On defense we will have to be gap sound and get some turnovers,” Zubey said.

To that end, though, the Coyotes’ faith in junior quarterback Jonathan Morris continues to grow. He has shown his coaches enough to expand the playbook as the year went on.

“He can run and pass, and Coach Comes has done a really good job with him, expanding the playbook a little at a time. He’s not a baby anymore. He’s been through an entire season. We have kids that pick up his concepts pretty fast. And when you can expand the playbook and they perform well, you just add another page,” Taylor said.

Centennial’s Jonathan Morris throws a pass for a completion against Bishop Gorman on Friday, Aug. 31, 2018 at Centennial High School in Peoria. [Jacob Stanek/Independent Newsmedia]

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.