A year ago in this space, it was decided the race for the 2A state championship would be muddled among a half-dozen schools.
Instead, St. Johns went undefeated and won its second consecutive state title in a runaway. Mike Morgan's team racked up a bewildering 760 points and was never challenged in any 2A game (Bill Morgan's Chandler Valley Christian team was as close as any 2A team got in a 44-27 state semifinal loss).
But we're climbing right back on the horse this year and sticking to the same story.
The Redskins have won 25 consecutive games but that might not last. Their first two games are against 3A champion Payson and at Eagar Round Valley, a top 3A school that only lost by a field goal to St. Johns last season.
The Redskins lost all-world running back Shad Bride (184 yards rushing per game, a mind-boggling 42 touchdowns) and leading receiver Kyle Hauser to graduation. They also suffered a couple of key injuries during the summer.
Valley Christian and Scottsdale Christian both think they will be better teams this season (and they were impressive last year). Northwest Christian has its skill position players back, and the likes of Benson and Thatcher are regularly competitive.
Despite the setback in the semifinals last year, the Trojans appear as slight favorites to win, especially if the defense improves a notch as expected and they can throw the ball with a bit more consistency.
If St. Johns gets through the first two weeks with victories, they could easily run the table through the regular season, but the hunch here is that with Valley Christian, Scottsdale Christian and Northwest Christian improving, the postseason won't be so pretty or predictable.
Teams (last year's record): Camp Verde (6-6); Canyon State (3-7); North Pointe Prep (2-8); Northwest Christian (10-2); Scottsdale Christian (8-3); Valley Christian (9-3)
Outlook: Coming off a second consecutive state semifinals appearance, Valley Christian is considered a slight favorite to win the region again. The Trojans will have a brand new offensive line, so that is going to be a process in the early going, but much of their skill position spots and defense return experience, and a second year under defensive coordinator Ernie Zevallos' scheme will only help. Scottsdale Christian loses big-time quarterback Jacob Storrer to graduation, but with an entire lineup of juniors and seniors for the first time in years, the Eagles expect big things from their backfield and a defense that returns eight starters from last year's team that reached the state quarterfinals.
What's new: Tempe Prep moves up from 1A to 2A this season. The Knights have a good core of talent returning from last year's superb playoff run into the 1A semifinals. The biggest question is depth because the Knights are moving from eight-man competition to 11-man, which means several players who might lack experience will become immediate starters, plus the school has nearly 200 fewer students enrolled than most of the rest of the region. The other issue is whether their talent translates to immediate success at a higher conference.
3A preseason rankings
1. Payson: Sure the coaching change is a big deal, but the Longhorns return 80 percent of their roster.
2. Blue Ridge: Must replace a previously loaded backfield with lots of juniors and seniors.
3. Fountain Hills: Conner Brinton is a two-way force, but can the defense do it again?
4. Wickenburg: Annually reload, but tall task awaits to match 13-1 season in 2008.
5. Coolidge: Coaching change plus a 70 percent roster turnover could make for a turbulent season by Coolidge standards.
2A preseason rankings
1. St. Johns: Two-time defending state champion lost RB Shad Bride (5,687 career rushing yards and state-record 105 TD) and top WR Kyle Hauser, but if the Redskins can get by 3A powers Payson and Round Valley, they can run the table.
2. Valley Christian: State semifinalists lose a couple of key RBs and offensive linemen but return QB Jordan Morgan, Blake Argo (1,100 rushing yards, 11 TD) and a large defensive line.
3. Scottsdale Christian: First-time coach Jeff Fox has a starting lineup of juniors and seniors (six on offense, eight on defense).
4. Benson: Semifinalists bring back QB Mark Mabry (10 TD, 5 int), RB Kyle Graf (2,300 rushing yards, 25 TD, 5 int on defense) and Dain Dastrup (104 tackles).
5. Northwest Christian: Team that lost to Valley Christian in quarterfinals returns a bevy of skill-position players led by senior QB Nathan Labarbera (2,776 yards, 23 TD).
1A preseason rankings
1. Mogollon: Defending 1A champion has reached the final four every year since 2003.
2. Joseph City: Finished 8-4 last year with only nine seniors on 2009 roster.
3. Valley Union: Returns 10 starters from last year's 8-1 team; Reminiscent of 2007 championship squad.
4. Valley Lutheran: QB Luke Wolkos (1,600 yards, 17 touchdowns) is one of 11 returning starters.
5. Salt River: Should tangle with Bagdad and Valley Lutheran in 1A West behind leading rusher Micah Butler.
THE ONES TO WATCH
Jordan Morgan: Valley Christian, QB/DB/K/P, 6-1, 195, Jr.; Spent time at All-American bowls this summer. He does it all. He's a leader on defense and one of the best punters in the East Valley. If the Trojans can improve the passing game even a little, the sky's the limit.
Brett Miller: Scottsdale Christian, RB/DB, 6-1, 175, Sr.; With Jacob Storrer gone, Miller becomes full-time starter at running back and will be counted on heavily to keep the Eagles' excellent running history intact. Averaged nearly 11 yards per carry and was Eagles' leading receiver (30 rec., 538 yards).
James Fitzgerald: Valley Christian, RB/DB, 5-9, 150, Sr.; Biggest contribution has been on defense (6 int in 2008), where he and Morgan are cornerstones of secondary, but graduations of Jimmy Oum, Brock Longanecker and Stephen Sasso give Fitzgerald more opportunity on offense.
Conner Brinton: Fountain Hills, QB/LB, 5-11, 185, Sr.; One of the top two-way players in 3A last year with 1,600 total yards, 14 TD, 72 tackles and 5 interceptions, and has a top target back in Jordan Henslin.
Matt Rich: Tempe Prep, TE/DL, 6-0, 190, Jr.; A three-sport athlete who'll be a second-year starter on the defensive line, Rich and linebacker Matt Rines will be paramount against the 2A's best rushing attacks.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH
Alex Forehand, Fountain Hills, OL/DL, Sr.; Jordan Henslin, Fountain Hills, WR/DB, Sr.; Beau Higgleman, Fountain Hills, RB/LB, Sr.; Austin Dahmer, Scottsdale Christian, TE/DL, Sr.; Adam Siwek, Scottsdale Christian, RB/DL, Sr.; Jordan Tyler, Scottsdale Christian, OL, Jr.; Josh O'Neill, Scottsdale Christian, RB/LB, Jr.; Rocky Brittain, Tempe Prep, QB/DB, So.; Tommy Knebelsberger, Tempe Prep, TE/DL, Jr.; Matt Rines, Tempe Prep, FB/LB, Jr.; Kyle Whalen, Tempe Prep, OL, Jr.; Addison Bare, Valley Christian, RB/DB, Sr.; Drew Bond, Valley Christian, WR/DB, Jr.; Kyle O'Brien, Valley Christian, TE/LB, Sr.; Colton Udall, Valley Christian, OL/DL, Jr.
Sept. 4, Valley Lutheran at Salt River: Both are among favorites to win the 1A West and 1A East, respectively, which, of course, means there's a chance they'll meet again in the playoffs.
Sept. 18, Valley Christian at Scottsdale Christian: Valley Christian will have to do it on the road this time, and an improved Scottsdale Christian team has the Eagles thinking about the 2007 game (43-21 win), not the 2006 or 2008 ugliness.
Oct. 9, Fountain Hills at Payson: Payson shut out Fountain Hills in last season's opener, but the Falcons can improve on their 3A state semifinals appearance, while the defending champions have a few more questions to answer.
Oct. 9, Northwest Christian at Valley Christian: A rematch of last year's state quarterfinals won by Valley Christian. The Trojans had recent success against Scottsdale Christian, and Phoenix Christian lost copious amounts of experience from last year, but Northwest Christian's spread offense and skill position players could make this game a sight to see.
Nov. 14: 1A title game, 7 p.m. at Apache Junction
Nov. 28: 2A title game, 12:30 p.m. at NAU Skydome
Nov. 28: 3A title game, 5 p.m. at NAU Skydome