Football Game of the Week: Willow Canyon at Valley Vista

battle of Surprise football
Valley Vista quarterback Antonio Gomez breaks the tackle of Willow Canyon linebacker Robert Eblen on his way to a first down run Sept. 22, 2017. Gomez is back for his senior season, and after an injury, is expected to play in the Sept. 14 game againt Willow Canyon. [Elliott Glick/Special to West Valley Preps]

WHAT: Willow Canyon (2-1) vs Valley Vista (2-1)
WHEN: 7 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Valley Vista High School, 15550 N. Parkview Place, Surprise
VISIT: West Valley Preps Saturday morning for a recap of this game, as well as Friday’s Cactus-Salpointe and Leland (Calif.)-Liberty football games.

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

Both Valley Vista and Willow Canyon come in to Friday’s annual rivalry game with a black eye.

More than suffering their first loss of the season, the Surprise schools also sustained multiple injuries that hit the skill positions particularly hard.

In a 48-20 loss at Phoenix Desert Vista, the Monsoon spent most of the second half with their emergency quarterback, junior Zeke Alfonso, taking snaps. Valley Vista coach Josh Sekoch said both senior starter Antonio Gomez and sophomore backup Burton Delay should be available against the Wildcats.

“Gomez has better chance of playing the whole game. Delay filled in for a couple series in second half using Gomez equipment, but just couldn’t load up on throws,” Sekoch stated in the email.

Also, Monsoon senior Nathan Lind was taken to a Valley hospital that night to have a neck injury checked out. Fortunately, all X-rays and scans showed no severe damage.

Meanwhile, in its 35-14 loss to Shadow Ridge, Willow Canyon (2-1) saw senior quarterback Bear Haynes and senior tailback Zach Swinbourne leave with injuries.

“I can tell you that our team is re-focused and recovering from injuries,” Willow Canyon coach Justin Stangler stated in an email.

The injuries had a cumulative effect for both football teams. Willow Canyon was in the game at halftime, trailing only 13-8. Two third quarter touchdowns helped the Stallions pull away.

More surprisingly, Valley Vista was in the running with a top 10 team in 6A through the first half. Desert Vista (3-0) was up 21-13 at home midway though the contest.

“We gave up two kickoffs, it’s where the big 6A East Valley schools get you. They have more depth on special teams. It was 21-13 with a kickoff return. Third quarter we didn’t gain first down and that hung out our defense and they ran it on us,” Sekoch said.

The aptly-named Thunder ground out 285 rushing yards on the Monsoon. Yet, Sekoch still feels good about his veteran defense, with nine starters returning.

As Sekoch pointed out, two Desert Vista touchdowns came against backups and with a wide receiver playing quarterback, that limited the offense. So far, the coach said, the defense has played just how he expected, physical and forcing turnovers.

“Having faced and competed against such a tough team really brought us together, we played really well together, we just need to maintain that mindset,” senior linebacker Dustin Mackey stated in an email interview.

Mackey is part of that experienced unit, and one of the Monsoon’s leading tacklers thus far. Seniors Alexander Zacek and Daniel Villegas and junior Makai Obregon are also back at linebacker.

Another linebacker, junior Trenton Foster, has been a top newcomer to the defense, leading Valley Vista with 19 tackles.

“Having that chemistry is very important, especially against good teams, being able to trust the guy next to you really helps in making the right reads,” Mackey stated.

Sekoch’s football team is considerably younger on offense. Gomez is the only senior starter, while several juniors had starting experience last year.

The coach said sophomore Liam Kellerher provides ability to stretch field and Nygel Bridges can fill in the program’s hybrid offensive weapon role.

“Also Henry Brown has big play ability as both a WR/KR and RB. We have to improve using Aiden Cunningham In he run game and hitting quick throws — not relying on deep passes. Our OL is bit more settled but very young,” Sekoch stated. “This week we have to be consistent up front and make sure we pick up the blitz.”

While Willow Canyon rolls out mostly on a veteran cast, but also relies on juniors for its skill positions.

Ormond has played most of the first three games in Haynes’ stead. Junior receivers Elijah Mathis and James Wilson Jr. start.

And other juniors are part of the mix.

“They have done a great job especially Josh being called on a day before the opening game. They have all stepped up and had to mature quicker then they probably anticipated,” Stangler stated. “Jonathan Hagestad and Josiah Meek are two other Juniors filling big roles on offense, defense, and special teams.”

Willow hits the road for the third game against a district rival in three weeks, with a 1-1 record thus far. That is not the number the Wildcats are focused on.

Valley Vista has won seven straight games in the Battle of Surprise. For new-look Willow Canyon, winning this game would be a major milepost.

Even though Shadow Ridge just beat the Wildcats and is a new opponent in Valley Vista’s 6A Southwest Region, the city’s original football rivalry still burns the hottest.

“We remind each other in our program of this game every day we are in weight room, practice and the summer. We didn’t (dwell on the loss). We moved forward as soon as we got on the bus from DV.,” Sekoch stated.

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