Elite Florida team will play Centennial in September

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

The Centennial football search to play a name brand out of state opponent in 2017 landed a visit from a team that may be the national powerhouse this fall.

Tuesday morning, the Peoria school’s athletics department announced that St. Thomas Aquinas from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will visit Centennial Sept. 29. The Raiders were the 2016 7A champions in one of the country’s premier football states and a fixture in most national top 10 rankings.

That may have only been a warm up for this fall. Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said he has read articles that list at least 22 returning Raider players with Division I scholarship offers.

“St. Thomas is a program that is nationally known and is the top program in the nation. All you have to do is google them and you will article about their dominance over the year. One article that was brought to my attention was that St. Thomas leads nation with 17 NFL players and that was in 2015,” Centennial athletic director Brett Palmer said.

Centennial players celebrate senior quarterback Isaac Steele’s touchdown during their 12-13 loss to Long Beach Poly. Friday, August 21, 2015 (West Valley Preps file)

The Coyotes entered the offseason with the goal to play another marquee program, two years after opening the 2015 season hosting Long Beach (Calif.) Poly in August. In addition to St. Thomas Aquinas, Centennial negotiated with name brand California programs Corona Centennial and Santa Anna Mater Dei.

Another California school made the game possible in a roundabout way, as Scottsdale Chaparral wanted to play at Valencia High School, just north of metro Los Angeles. For both schools to get an out of state game without playing 11 contests and having to petition the AIA, Centennial and Chaparral agreed to drop their game scheduled for Sept. 1.

Coach Taylor said St. Thomas Aquinas was the most consistent school during negotiations, offering to fly its team out with no strings attached. One of the California schools offered to pick up about $10,000 of Centennial’s bill for traveling to the Los Angeles suburbs.

Centennial has only traveled out of state once, to Reno, Nev. in 2009 to play defending state champion McQueen in the Sollenberger Classic. Both state associations funded that trip.

“(Rumors about) all three were true,” Coach Taylor said. “I don’t want to go there. I want people around here to be able to see it.”

This game could have a wider reach. Mr. Palmer said the schools are working with ESPN and FOX for national game of the week status.

Either way, playing a team with his kind of national profile ensures Centennial will be in the spotlight. And that the Coyotes will be a decided underdog.

That is not a concern to Coach Taylor, who said playing an opponent of this caliber can only help his team grow — which would have been the case with any one of the three prospective opponents.

“I heard someone say ‘what if they kill you?’ That doesn’t concern me. Either way, at least the kids will have the chance to play a great team and learn from it,” Coach Taylor said. “I know immediately when that discussion started, our kids started lifting harder.”

Other than Chandler Hamilton traveling to, and beating, Booker T. Washington in Miami in 2008, Florida and Arizona teams have never matched up. Top local schools have made regular trips to — and welcomed teams from — California in the last decade.

Games with Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and the best teams from Colorado and Utah are becoming the norm.  But this fall Arizona schools will break new ground by facing teams from the football hotbed across the country this fall.

On Aug. 26 Arizona 6A champion Chandler will host Bradenton (Fla.)-based IMG Academy, a sports preparatory academy that plays a national schedule and has a national reach in drawing Future college prospects.

Of course, St. Thomas Aquinas’ returning roster makes them comparable to a football prep school.

“I think between us and Chandler (playing IMG) this is the first time a Florida team has traveled for a high school game. This is just an amazing opportunity to get a chance to play one of the best teams in America and showcase our team, our school, our district and the state of Arizona high school football,” Palmer said.

 

 

 

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