A Blog by Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
In my blog about 5A football I mentioned Scottsdale Saguaro is the odds on favorite to win 4A football and claim its fifth straight state title.
But as big as we tend to make state titles — and going to state — in our folklore, there is much more to high school football than shiny rings. Every team has a story to tell and the four 4A schools we cover — Cactus, Dysart, Peoria and Sunrise Mountain — are successful and, in their own ways, good stories.
All four schools earned playoff berths last year and all but Dysart reached the second round. None look ripe to fall out of the postseason.
However, two programs have to replace their defining figure. Let’s look at them first.
Dealing with change
Sunrise Mountain has been at the top of the heap locally for the last three seasons. Of course, in those three years Chase Cord threw the bulk of the touchdown passes that made him the all-time state leader — and ran for a fair amount too.
So where are the Mustangs this year, without the player that led them to their only three region titles and first two top 5 finishes? The program is in surprisingly good shape.
Sure, the offense will take a hit with Cord n Boise. But coach Steve Decker’s attack has always been unusually quarterback friendly and junior Keegan Freid.
Freid started one game and played extensive minutes in two others as Cord nursed an ACL injury. And he’s had two years of summer 7-on-7 tourneys to develop a rapport with receivers Jay Anderson and Angel Ruiz and tailback Drake Flores.
Last year’s inexperienced offensive line is this year’s veterans, led by tackle Jake Wagner. Standout seniors — defensive end Gavin Chaddock, and safety Bobby Ramirez — will take over a defense that continues to make strides but seeks another gear in big games.
Plus, this varsity roster will be stocked with three classes worth of dominant freshman teams. Sunrise Mountain has one freshman team loss in the past three years, by three points to Liberty last season.
Dysart is almost a polar opposite to the Mustangs. Though the Demons lost a successful senior class the biggest void, at least at first will be on the coaching staff.
J.R. Alcantar left last December and ended up at Cesar Chavez. All but three assistant coaches left with him.
Alcantar’s impact should not be minimalized. Inheriting a 2-8 program in 2013, that coaching staff persevered through a 6-14 record the first two years.
The last two years, Dysart went 16-6 end made its first two playoff appearances in more than 20 years. This was done despite the Demons’ usual deficiencies in number of players and monetary support.
However new coach John Ganados is an alum, so he knows the area and what this program is up against. Ganados came home last year along with his son, starting quarterback Kobe, and was a longtime assistant on another program that often overachieved — Phoenix Thunderbird.
The team lost a pair of 1,000-yard rushers but returns top notch linemen Elston Cadle, Raymond Cruz and David Leasau.
And Dysart remains the big dog in the Black Canyon region. Apache Junction looms as the most formidable.
So the changeover from Alcantar’s staff to Ganados’ may be better understood in the long term. This year’s Demons look like a solid bet for an 8-2 season (at worst), complete with another region title and playoff berth.
Cactus and Peoria are not regularly playing for state titles anymore. But both programs have remained relevant and so has their rivalry — while contemporaries like Agua Fria, McClintock, Mesa, Moon Valley and Tempe struggle to put together more than one ranked squad per decade.
Last year was close to the norm for these programs since 2011, Cactus’ last finals appearance, a record in the 7-3 range and a playoff bid.
Along the way the schools played one of the all time great games in their historic rivalry, won 35-28 by Cactus with a fourth down stop at the 10 yard line.
Those 2016 teams were stout on both sides of the line. Both are largely starting over this year, though the Cobras have a leg up with G Robert Vasquez and NG Scott Jones returning compared to Panthers T Tomas Gutierrez.
Each squad also returns a dual-threat quarterback that performed shockingly well as a junior starting for the first time. Peoria’s Nate Dobson is the more explosive of the two and carries a bigger burden to create offensively while Cactus’ Mahal Lee is less explosive but more careful with the ball — and dynamic enough to keep defenses honest.
While the Panthers are equal at linebacker and better in the secondary, the Cobras probably have the ace in 2017 in the form of tailback Damaria Norris. He rushed for 2,200 yards as a junior.
If both teams can avenge last year’s loss to a now-depleted Marcos de Niza unit, there is an excellent chance for showdown between 5-0 Cactus and 5-0 Peoria Sept. 29.
Slippage is possible at Dysart and Peoria, both of whom lost some physical linemen from 2016. But don’t bet on it.
These two teams are likely to end up in about the same spots as last year and I like Peoria to get a first round home game as a 7 or 8 seed while Dysart takes home another Black Canyon Region banner.
Cactus and Sunrise Mountain is a more interesting question. If a 4A team is to challenge Saguaro, Tucson Salpointe Catholic and Gilbert Higley are the top candidates.
That fourth spot, however, is ripe for the Cobras or Mustangs to claim. 2016 finalist Tucson Catalina Foothills and Marcos de Niza are almost starting over.
In spite of Cord graduating and Cactus losing most of its powerful offensive line, both teams should remain prolific offensively. And each team has to wonder — at least a little bit — if the defense can hold up against another top team.
And there’s a good chance these Peoria district rivals will find out against each other, most likely in two games.