Football schools large, small have something to prove

Fans of local 6A, 3A and 2A teams may have wondered if they would be passed over in my football blog series.

Fear no more. In the last of my sometimes rambling series I will look at the two public schools in Arizona’s big school division, as well as the four Northwest charter or private schools in the small enrollment divisions.

For the 6A schools with the large student bodies, a playoff berth is the goal. For the two smallest schools stuck in 2A, improvement is the objective.

And for two of these teams, a state championship is a legitimate possibility. Let’s look at all three groupings.

Valley Vista teammates lift Ray Baquero into the air after a touchdown last year. The 1,200-yard rusher will be a senior this fall. [File Photo]

6A: Proof in the playoffs

Both Mountain Ridge and Valley Vista would view a postseason berth as validation, but for very different reasons.

In north Glendale, a new coaching staff looks to answer the question, “Is Mountain Ridge football a sleeping giant?” in the affirmative. Vinny Ciliberti and his staff certainly injected more than the usual level of hope into the Mountain Lions program this offseason.

But flipping 3-7 to 7-3 (or even better) is a heavy lift this year. This senior class has virtually zero proven varsity players, and the most notable junior — tailback Jett Kinsch — transferred to Liberty.

The new look program will have to turn around its non-region record to 3-2, at least. There is a chance to jump in the Desert Valley Region, but Mountain Ridge must improve rapidly to pass Boulder Creek and Desert Mountain — let alone region kingpin Pinnacle and prospect-heavy Horizon.

I have little doubt the Mountain Lions will be improved, but turning this program around is not a simple matter of new voices and new philosophies.

In Surprise, the Monsoon is coming off, arguably, the best season in its history.  The 8-3, 2012 squad might argue, but last year’s team faced a tougher schedule and was much more competitive against playoff teams like Skyline, Westview and Perry.

The next step for Josh Sekoch’s program is one of the toughest at a non-football factory — consistency.

Valley Vista reached the big division playoffs in 2012, 2014 and 2016, but dipped in the odd numbered years. And the 2017 team has some concerns, primarily replacing two of the most uniquely gifted players ever to wear its jersey — offensive tackle Creston Cooledge and receiver/return dynamo Vodrey Gates.

More voids must be filled at quarterback, receiver and defensive back. However, the cupboard is not bare.

Ray Baquero is the most prolific Monsoon tailback since Charles James and the offensive line should not drop off too much. The defensive front seven is littered with solid returning players.

As a bonus, the schedule peaks with Mountain View and Skyline in the first two weeks, then drops off.  The Monsoon must maintain its dominance of Surprise rivals Shadow Ridge and Willow Canyon to maintain its success going into league play.

And the Southwest Region is the weakest in 6A. Valley Vista has to hold off Tolleson and Millennium — which is on its third coach and three years. Even once-dominant Westview has shown signs of slippage.

Joy Christian’s Colt Sands wraps up Glendale Preps Noah Roundly in Friday night action in Aug. 26, 2016. [Jerry Burch for West Valley Prep]

2A: Trying to grow

Glendale Prep and Joy Christian both longed for a return to 1A and eight-man football last season. The Griffins ‘ were concerned about getting enough players out for 11-man football at the academically focused Latin prep school.

The Eagles weren’t even sure they could field an 8-man team, let along 11, after virtually every player on the 2015 state champions left. Joy Christian did take the field with what amounted to a freshman team playing varsity, never getting closer to an opponent than 40 points.

Glendale Prep was their first opponent and won 62-14 en route to a 4-5 season. Unlike virtually every other team in the state, the Griffins’ varsity roster grew as the season continued with veterans returning to the fold.

Jamie Self’s team will continue to rely on its precision misdirection offense and technique on defense. Back/linebacker Noah Roundy will try to lead the way to a winning record.

After what amounted to a stopgap year with a bunch of football newcomers coached by Micah Johnson, Joy Christian is looking for stability more than wins.  New coach Patrick Blakesley is a former quarterback coach at Centennial, and he will have to lay the foundation.

The good news is, there was an offseason program this year. And the newcomers of 2016, along with four or five kids with football experience, are all back.

Even if everything goes right, picking up a win against a schedule set up for the former juggernaut coached by Brian Cole will be tough. The barometer for the Eagles is this — can they be competitive in about half their games and will they look like a varsity football team by the end of the season?

Small school contenders

3A and 2A loom as the most wide open conferences in Arizona this year, and each has a local contender — hailing from the geographic edges of West Valley Preps’ coverage area.

To no one’s surprise, Northwest Christian is one of those title hopefuls. The Crusaders are one of about eight squads with a chance to win it all.

Other perennials in the 3A mix are Sabino, Snowflake, Show Low and Yuma Catholic. Of those team only Sabino and Show Low return nearly as many proven players as the Crusaders — and both of those teams are replacing longtime coaches.

Three relatively fresh faces may be Northwest Christian’s biggest obstacles. Defending champ American Leadership starts that off, though they will be less explosive with every playmaker besides Bujon Boyd gone.

Quietly, Florence had an excellent year in 2016 and, still under the radar, most of the Gophers’ top players return. Then there’s Casteel.

The Colts have no seniors, yet they can say everyone is back. And the talent is such at this new Chandler Unified school that went 9-2 with freshmen and sophomores that it has to be considered a title contender — right now.

Northwest Christian faces foes old and new with more experienced, bigger and better lines on both sides — led by stud Jaden Hoyt. If new quarterback Jarin Davis and a new backfield can provide some offensive threats, the Crusaders are very steady everywhere else.

Paradise Honors may be more of a dark horse than a 2A favorite. Phoenix Christian, where Cole and those former Joy Christian players landed, probably rates as a slight favorite.

The three clear top teams in 2016 — Thatcher, Round Valley and Santa Cruz — all suffered heavy losses but should be in the mix. And the defending state champs, Thatcher, have the most coming back.

Solid programs like Benson, Pima and Tempe Prep dot the next tier. But no 2A team is poised to make a leap like Paradise Honors.

For this year only, the Surprise charter will be the largest 2A school by far. Paradise Honors renovated its campus and will push the capacity to 800.

Some of those newcomers, no doubt, will be pretty decent at football. And they’ll join a pretty good group of returners.

After all, how many teams bring back two 1,000-yard backs? Seniors Christian Moga and Sekou Tyler could roll up even more yards as the focal points of the Panthers’ Wing-T.

Junior quarterback Jordan Gourley and receiver/corner Clayton Duzy have started since they were freshmen. Linebacker Shane Kratzer is a tackling machine.

We will see how far the Panthers have come very early, since they visit Santa Cruz to start the season.

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