Blog: West Valley ready to run 5A football

A blog by Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

All three big school football divisions in Arizona crowned East Valley schools as champions last fall.
Chandler and Scottsdale Saguaro are odds on favorites to repeat in 6A and 4A, respectively.
But if Gilbert Williams Field wants to defend its 5A crown or 2016 top seed Vail Cienega wants to complete an undefeated season in 2017, they will have to navigate a conference chock full of top West Valley contenders.

Because West Valley Preps focuses on the Northwest Valley, this blog will not go in depth about the prospects for Goodyear Desert Edge (my way-too-early preseason No. 2 in 5A) or Buckeye Verrado (somewhere in the No. 8-10 range).

Include those schools, and the West Valley is in line for five of the top 10 teams in the division, if not more.
5A is also the home to half – seven of the 14 – of the public schools West Valley Preps covers. Let’s give them a look about 50 days away from kickoff:

Centennial running back Zidane Thomas (2) sprints down the sideline ahead of Liberty defensive back DJ Mumin on a long run during the first half of their 5A football game on Friday, Oct. 28, 2016. (Ralph Freso for West Valley Preps)

The favorite

It’s Centennial. Way to make the obvious choice Smith.

Sorry for going with the chalk but facts are facts. The Coyotes nearly won it all last year and return 12 starters plus several more contributors.

The drama will mostly be in the preseason and first five games thanks to the unusual transfer scenario of star senior tailback Zidane Thomas.

Thomas moved to Florida this winter to live with his mother after his sister left Arizona. He enrolled at Hillsborough High in Tampa but only stayed a bit more than a week before returning to Centennial and moving in with a guardian.

This, and other prominent cases, will prove interesting tests of the AIA’s two-year old transfer rule. Thomas may have to sit out five games.

His situation is a classic case of spirit of the law versus letter of the law. Thomas’ two moves affected no other Arizona schools and barely even affected his offseason program with the Coyotes.

He should get to play from the home opener against Desert Edge. But, technically, he did transfer to Centennial this offseason and if the AIA continues to take a hard line to establish the rule, Thomas will not re-debut until the prime time showdown with St. Thomas Aquinas from (ironically) Florida.

Desert Edge and Phoenix Pinnacle could knock off Centennial early without Thomas. But don’t expect a major drop off, for two reasons:
1. The Coyotes return four starters on their always strong offensive line.
2. When does Centennial only have one talented running back? Seior Alex Escobar would get the first crack and the stable should again be deep.

Quarterback Ruben Beltran also is back. The defense returns fewer starters but corner Dom Hampton and linebacker Jordan Ware have star potential and the defensive line is quite solid.

Deer Valley’s Dez Melton (88) is dragged down by Queen Creek’s Kade Carrasco (1) during the second half of their 5A football game on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. (Ralph Freso for West Valley Preps)

The dark horses

Ask me right now and I’d pick Cienega at No. 3 and Williams Field at No. 4. But who is No. 5?

Queen Creek and Oro Valley Ironwood Ridge are the more predictable candidates. And they are pretty safe bets, particularly the Bulldogs.

However, two local teams could rise into the top five and perhaps even higher. Both Deer Valley and Liberty have clear strengths that will make their 2017 teams a threat to anyone in 5A.

Of those two squads the Skyhawks have the higher ceiling — and the lower floor. Deer Valley just missed the playoffs last year at 6-4 and returns 14 starters.

Three of those guys — seniors Joey Ramos, Xavier Delgado and Brandon McCrea — spearhead one of the best offensive lines in the state. Ramos already has scholarship offers from 11 BCS schools and his two linemates are starting to attract college attention too.

They’ll clear the way for junior Dez Melton, who rushed for 1,362 yards despite converting from receiver early in the year. The 6-4, 210 star still has a receiver’s frame and will play that position in college — and barring an unforeseen setback, it will be a brand name college.

The question is who plays quarterback and will the team piece together a passing attack. The defense is full of returning starters and should be solid.

Liberty’s defense should be more than solid. Eight starters are back for the Lions, led by junior prodigy Ryan Puskas at safety.

All three levels of Mark Smith’s defense are experienced, physical, solid and fast. This defense should fare better in early season tests against Sunrise Mountain and Verrado than it did in 2016.

For Liberty’s sake, the defense needs to be stout as a revamped offense tries to find itself. Bell cow Colton Newton is gone, as is dual-threat quarterback Andrew Magri.

A versatile quarterback is a Liberty tradition and the Lions moved Ryand Bendle there from his successful slot receiver/fly sweep guy role last year.

Who fills the gaps around Bendle? The receiving corps is more talented but considerably younger.

And the team’s most talented tailback, junior Jett Kinsch, is almost certain to miss the first five after transferring from Mountain Ridge. Fellow junior Dax Shields will need to hold down the fort.

Kellis junior Josiah Bailey makes a Shadow Ridge defender miss during the teams’ Aug. 28, 2016 matchup [Jacob Stank/West Valley Preps]
The wild card

How will Kellis follow up its best season? A forgiving schedule should give the Cougars a chance to figure things out.

By the end of the year, this team should be back in the top 10. If they are not, it probably means region rival Apollo passed Kellis.

The Cougars are long in explosive two-way playmakes, particularly seniors Josiah Bailey and Quentin Estice. A solid defensive line is largely intact and Nick Bejarano is a top middle linebacker.

Both lower level teams played well last year and kids from both teams will need to step in, especially on offense. Bailey and Estice are about the only known quantities.

All five starting linemen and workhorse tailback Damien Campbell are gone. If Kellis is to continue its revival, their replacements will have to maintain a steady ground game.

Sophomore wide receiver Zach Collop heads downfield against Valley Vista during the teams’ Sept. 9, 2016 game [Courtesy Dysart Unified School District]
The hopefuls

Injected with truth serum, most people in the Ironwood, Shadow Ridge and Willow Canyon football programs would be overjoyed if their team reached the playoffs this season.

None of these teams won more than three games in 2016. Yet all have reasons for optimism this summer.
Shadow Ridge has the sunniest outlook. Most of a young starting lineup is back, led by tailback Scotty Nixon and receivers Zaach Cullop and Nathan Duran.

Solid young players dot the defense. And the Stallions’ strength and depth lies in a large junior class.

Promising juniors, though not as many of them, may lift Ironwood. Look for Devante Wimbish, Stone Aguirre and Jory Johnson are great building blocks for the Eagles.

A brutal opening stretch makes an Ironwood playoff push unlikely. Progress for this program would be a .500 record and third place in the Metro behind Apollo and Kellis.

Willow Canyon lost more senior starters in the other two teams. But in spots the Wildcats show promise.

Watch for junior TE/DE Zach Enhelder, senior TB Dom Cardoza and senior DE Austin Dylong. If some other young players step up, the schedule — besides Centennial and Liberty — is forgiving enough for a turnaround season.

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