As another football season gets underway, local teams are aimed at playoff berths and improved play as realignment makes for some intense competition between area teams.
Peoria Liberty moves to 6A, joining Mountain Ridge among the top division in the Arizona Interscholastic Association. As the only two teams in the top division, they will face each other in week six for the first time.
Apollo and Ironwood join the Northwest Section while Independence remains in the Desert West Section this year. Deer Valley (West Valley), which drops down from 5A this year, and Glendale (Black Canyon) could each surprise in 4A with realignment helping both.
Here are capsules on the local teams:
Deer Valley Skyhawks
Coach: Dan Friedman (first year as Deer Valley head coach)
2017 record: 5-5-0 (3-2 in Desert West Section, did not qualify (DNQ) for playoffs)
2018 section: West Valley Section 4A
Key losses: Will Haskell (QB), Sebastian Fiery (WR), Mehki Mannino-Faison (WR), Manny Tinoco (Util), Sammy Tinoco (Util)
Key returning players: Dez Melton (RB/WR), Noah Cervantez (OL/DL), Chase Sazone (DT), Alex McKeon (LB/TE), Justin Quintero (LB/RB) Ja’wan Casteal (CB/WR) and Damien Rebullosa (S)
Outlook: The Skyhawks were hurt when Haskell, Fiery, Mannino-Faison and the Tinoco brothers transferred to Ironwood after a spring incident off campus. Friedman enters his first season as Deer Valley head coach after coaching wide receivers at Arizona Christian University.
Melton will be key, as he is one of the top players in the state playing running back to lead Friedman’s spread offense. Tyler Druszcz, Casteal and Jacob McCollum now lead the wide receiving corps with Melton carrying the majority of the time at running back.
Defensively, the Skyhawks will run a 3-4 base defense and will be led by Jayden Coleman, Dom Duggan and Sazone. Rebullosa led the secondary at safety while Jaydn Shields returns to starting cornerback after taking time away from the team.
Prediction: The Skyhawks join the West Valley section, which is one of the toughest sections in 4A. Cactus, Peoria and Desert Edge will be the top teams and if the Skyhawks can get off to a quick start, getting much-needed experience early, they could challenge for a section title.
Coach: Ian Curtis (ninth year as Ironwood head coach)
2017 record: 2-8-0 (0-5 in Metro Section, DNQ)
2018 section: Northwest Section 5A
Key losses: Logan Crandell (CB/WR), Josiah Spivey (WR), Larry Wimbish (WR/OLB), Torin Kimbell (LB/RB) and Tyrus Kissler (WR)
Key returning players: Stone Aguirre (MLB/FB), Devante Wimbish (RB/OLB), Spencer Forsberg (WR/OLB), Woodburn Schofield (G/C), Cameron Little (G) and Nate Guzman (WR/CB)
Outlook: The Eagles, who have had five straight losing seasons, look for a rebound with a young team that returns a 1,000-yard rusher in Devante Wimbish. Curtis said transfers have improved his team with experience.
“We have had eight transfers from Deer Valley that improved our team,” Curtis said. “Our philosophy this year is toughness, tempo, finish, big plays and swag, as we like to spread (our offense) out.”
Curtis said their offensive and defensive lines have shown the biggest improvement and knows they will need that improvement to get them more wins. He points to Aguirre as key to showing that growth.
“(Aguirre) is the best linebacker I have coached and he is a fantastic student and flat-out competitor,” Curtis said.
Prediction: Ironwood opens with Independence and faces a tough preseason with matchups against Cactus and Willow Canyon. Playing in one of the toughest sections in the state, the Eagles may struggle in their first season in the Northwest with games against Sunrise Mountain, Centennial, Kellis and Sunnyslope.
Mountain Ridge Mountain Lions
Coach: Vince Ciliberti (second year as Mountain Ridge head coach)
2017 record: 2-8-0 (0-5 in Desert Valley Section, DNQ)
2018 section: Desert Valley Section 6A
Key losses: Anthony Trancos (G), Cole Nakamura (OL), Justin Hintze (QB/S) and Ben Tye (RB/CB)
Key returning players: Ethan Hudak (LS/DE), Carson Shoemaker (DE), Jackson Pratte (DL/OL), Jacob Graf (RB/FB), Preston Miller (WR/KR) and David Doucet (WR/CB)
Outlook: Ciliberti begins his second season at Mountain Ridge with an eye on building a strong program and changing up his philosophy.
“We will run a mix of read option and a two-back power running game,” Ciliberti said. “We also hope to have an efficient intermediate passing game to ease our running game.”
Outside linebacker Tommy Ellis is a key player on the defense and could be the team’s break-out star.
“Ellis has the ability to be an impact player on both sides of the ball,” Ciliberti said. “He should be a great leader on this team.”
Prediction: While they continue in 6A this season, the Mountain Lions have a tough schedule with games against Scottsdale Chaparral and new section team Peoria Liberty. They should improve on last season’s two wins as they build for the future.
Coach: Joseph Ortiz (first year as Cactus head coach)
2017 record: 13-1-0 (3-1-0 in West Valley Section, Lost quarterfinals 4A playoffs)
2018 section: West Valley Section 4A
Key losses: Mahal Lee (QB), Scott Jones (DT, DE) and Damaria Norris (RB)
Key returning players: Zach Cullup (WR), Conner Cordts (QB), Anthony Flores (RB), Matthew Herrera (MLB), Rylee Williams (DB) and Nico Quinones (SS)
Outlook: After 34 years, a different head coach will be on the sidelines for the Cobras as Larry Fetkenhier is replaced by Ortiz.
Ortiz said he plans to run a fast-paced offense and defense and attack the ball defensively to take advantage of team speed.
“We are fast and quick to the ball,” Ortiz said. “We are instilling character from top to bottom, and it is all about the kids and giving them a preferred experience.”
Replacing Norris will be the key to the offense after he rushed for 1,966 yards and 34 touchdowns last year. The Cobras also have to replace quarterback Lee, who combined for 1,188 yards (898 passing, 290 rushing) and 15 touchdowns.
The Cobras will be stacked at wide receiver with transfer students Plas Johnson (Kellis) and Riley Davies (Centennial) joining Cullup to give quarterback Cordts a variety of receivers.
“(Cordts) has a strong arm and is very athletic, along with being a 4.0 student,” Ortiz said. “(Flores) at running back is fast and explosive and (Cullup) has great hands and incredible leaping ability.”
Prediction: When you replace a coaching legend, things can be tough, but Ortiz seems to be instilling even more respect and character in the athletes at Cactus. The preseason is winnable, so when they begin play in the West Valley section, they should be strong on both sides of the ball. They will battle cross-town rival Peoria and a section title should come down to the final game when the two meet at Peoria High School on Oct. 26.
Coach: Stephen Hogg (first year as Kellis head coach)
2017 record: 7-3-0 (2-3-0 in 5A Metro Section, DNQ)
2018 section: Northwest Section 5A
Key losses: Dylan Naylor (WR/FS), Xavier Silva (CB), Isaiah Diaz (FS), Avery Reynolds (DE), Zeph Clark (OL/DL), Manny Gonzalez (OL), Quentin Estice (CB/RB) and Nick Bejarano (LB)
Key returning players: Angel Martinez (OL), Josh Mendivil (DL/OL), Elijah Juarez (RB), Cade Peterson (QB), Ricky Luna (WR) and Adrian Gaines (DE)
Outlook: Hogg takes over for Shawn Copeland, who turned the Cougars around from a winless team in 2014 to nine wins in 2016. Hogg said he will use a spread-zone offense to focus on his team’s speed and experience.
Peterson returns at quarterback after throwing for 2,161 yards and 24 touchdowns, while adding 372 yards rushing. Juarez, who led the team with 644 yards rushing last season, returns to lead the running game while Quentin Estice will get some carries.
Hogg points to Chase Weaver as a possible breakout player after getting limited playing time last season.
“He has shown a lot of potential as a sophomore but didn’t fit the system very well last year,” Hogg said. “Now, he is poised to be a standout on both offense and defense.”
Hogg said the goal for this year is simple, “to use football as a tool to help shape these guys into better men down the road. Hopefully, they will look back on their experience and know that because of it, they are now better husbands, fathers, workers and citizens.”
Prediction: The Cougars return a strong core and first-year coach Hogg inherits talent to make a run at a playoff spot. Peterson has the ability to be one of the top quarterbacks in the Valley and, combined with Juarez, Luna and Estice, will showcase a potent offense. The Cougars may struggle in the Northwest but should battle Sunrise Mountain, Centennial and Glendale Apollo for a playoff spot.