2016 RECORD:12-2 (5A runner up)
REGION: 5A Northwest
COACH: Richard Taylor (27th year)
OFFENSE: I formation, spread
KEY RETURNEES: Ruben Beltran, Sr., QB; Zidane Thomas, Sr., RB; Carson Keltner, Jr. C; Trevor Renfro, Sr., G; Anthony Campbell, Sr., DT; Jordan Ware, Sr., LB; Dominique Hampton, Sr., CB/WR.
NEWCOMERS TO WATCH: A.J. Jackson, Jr., WR/S; Cristian Williams, Sr., OL (transfer-Phoenix Sierra Linda).
Home games in caps
Aug. 18 DESERT EDGE
Aug. 25 at Apollo
Sept. 8 at Maricopa
Sept. 14 PINNACLE (YurView 7 TV)
Sept. 22 at Westview
Sept. 29 ST. THOMAS AQUINAS (FLA.) (YurView 7 TV)
Oct. 6 at Shadow Ridge
Oct. 13 at Sierra Linda
Oct. 20 WILLOW CANYON
Oct. 27 LIBERTY
As expected, Centennial will be in its share of spotlight games this season, including a marquee matchup with Florida powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas in Coyote Country Sept. 29.
But more than anything else, returning players are focusing on Nov. 26 … 2016. That’s the day an underdog Gilbert Williams Field shut down and shocked Centennial 14-6 to win the 5A state title.
Coach Richard Taylor, in his 27th year at Centennial after debuting the program, said many players coming back have not really taken a day off since that game at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“Directly after the game we used it as fire. We got the ball rolling in the weight room the Monday right after,” senior tailback/slotback Alex Escobar said.
It was easier for Escobar to get lost in the shuffle last year. Fellow senior tailback Zidane Thomas burst onto the scene like a supernova last fall, gaining 2,000 yards behind a young offensive line.
Taylor said Thomas’ emergence was a bit out of the blue for the Coyotes coaching staff, too. He also said Escobar returns faster and more determined.
He may not be the full-time tailback but Escobar appears ready to assume the role of all-around weapon, like former Coyotes John Hughes and Jalen Ortiz. Like those luminaries, Escobar will get some opportunities from the slot, on handoffs and split out wide.
“For a long time he has wanted a Division I scholarship. I told him that in order for that to happen at your size, you’re going to have to be the best player on the field every game,” Taylor said. “There was a DI recruiter here and I introduced him and asked if he had any advice. (He said the same thing) and I thought that couldn’t have gone any better if I had told him what to say.”
He may need to dominate the early half of the schedule because of Thomas’ uncertain status. Technically, Thomas is a transfer student and as such he will have a hearing between Tuesday and Thursday this week.
Thomas briefly moved with his mother to Tampa, Florida and attended Hillsborough High School for a week. He quickly decided to return to Centennial and live with a guardian.
Under the two-year-old AIA transfer policy, all transfers have to sit out the first half of the season unless their hardship appeal is granted. Taylor said he is hoping the appeals board ruling is in line with the spirit of the law — a deterrent for transfers from one Arizona school to another — and not the letter of the law.
“That would be such a miscarriage of justice,” Taylor said. “He was there for five days and didn’t participate in any games. It was like a mini-vacation.”
Whenever he arrives, Boise State verbal commit Thomas should resume his role as the rare back that can steadily move the chains and hit the home run. Taylor said Thomas is very humble and does not take his status or abilities for granted.
Escobar, Thomas and a new crop of playmakers will benefit behind one of the state’s top offensive lines. Four starters return — seniors at guard (Trevor Renfro) and tackle (Daniel Thomas) and juniors at center (Carson Keltner) and tackle (Jacob Fyffe).
Renfro also turned in a big offseason, being named a captain and setting the school record for the bench press at 465 pounds.
“I saw a picture of Carson, Trevor and Jacob Fyffe last year. If you look at them now, they don’t look the same,” Taylor said.
Junior guard Matthew Kudray is the only new starter along the line, at least for now. Phoenix Sierra Linda transfer Cristian Williams is likely to sit out the first five games, but the Bulldogs’ best lineman in 2016 is learning the offense and improved his bench press by 85 pounds in the summer.
Quarterback Ruben Beltran is back for his senior season and more prepared to make defenses pay for stacking the box against the run. He also was chosen as a team captain.
“I’ve come back in knowing that my line, running backs and receivers know what to do,” Beltran said. “Now I’m putting other people where they’re supposed to be. And throwing the ball where it is supposed to go.”
Juniors Kieran Clark and A.J. Jackson and sophomore Dyelan Miller will take on expanded roles at wide receiver, as will ace cornerback Dominique Hampton.
Centennial has more questions on defense. Washington commit Hampton and opponents’ desire to avoid the cornerback is not one of them.
“I was talking to Gary Bernardi from Colorado and he said, ‘Hey we’re looking at Dom Hampton and his stats, he doesn’t have many interceptions or tackles,’” Taylor said. “I said, ‘I know, they go the other way. They stay away from him.’ They started watching and realized that was true.”
Hampton is one of three seniors who will be pillars at their position groups while inexperienced players fill in. Defensive tackle Anthony Campbell and linebacker Jordan Ware are rocks.
Yet, a pair of part timers from last year, linebacker Christian Gomez and defensive end Jacob Franklin, were chosen as captains.
Franklin started in the opener against Goodyear Desert Edge in Flagstaff, but was injured in that game and barely played the rest of the year.
“He always puts other people before himself and that’s the kind of leadership I like. The servant leader — somebody who makes someone else better, rather than ‘I’m the captain, you’re going to do what I say,’” Taylor said.
Juniors Jeiel Starks and Jackson have stood out as newcomers in the secondary.
Jackson is dealing with injuries, while Thomas and Williams might miss the first half of the year. Thus, the Coyotes may not be 100 percent for early season showdowns with Desert Edge and Phoenix Pinnacle.
Everyone should be on board for the visit from St. Thomas Aquinas, and it may not be enough. More than 20 players on the Raiders’ roster have at least one scholarship offer from an NCAA Division I school.
As it was when Long Beach Poly visited in 2015, if not more so, Taylor said playing a team of this caliber can only make the Coyotes better.
“We were in the weight room when we heard that and we were all pumped,” Beltran said.
Ultimately, this team’s goal goes beyond the opportunity to play one of the top 10 teams in the country.
The objective is to treat every opponent like they are Aquinas, so the Coyotes get another chance in November to bring home the program’s sixth state title.
“The main thing that we try to instill within our guys is that we’re going to give each team the respect they deserve. We’re not going to underestimate anybody. We’re not going to think about anyone else down the road. Of course, we’re always going to have state in mind,” Escobar said.