With the first week of the prep football season in the books, Saguaro High School is preparing for a trip to San Diego for the 2019 Honor Bowl.
But the Sabercats’ California trip is more than just another out-of-state contest; it’s a battle between two premier programs in the nation.
“Every game is must-win game for us,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said. “Especially in terms of wanting to make the Open Division, we don’t have much room for error.”
Saguaro entered the 2019 season ranked No. 22 by MaxPreps. The Sabercats opened the new season against conference foe Poston Butte High School this past Friday, defeating the Broncos 63-0. Awaiting Saguaro in San Diego is Cathedral Catholic High School, the host school of the Honor Bowl and No. 45 team in the country.
It’s the first of two out-of-state games for Saguaro this season, the second of which coming next week against Nevada power Faith Lutheran High School, who faced Mountain Pointe High School to open the season.
Cathedral Catholic finished 12-2 last season and fell to Folsom High School in overtime of the 1-AA championship game. The Dons lost several of their top players to graduation from last year’s runner-up team. However, quarterback DJ Ralph returns as the starter to lead the offense while the team’s leading tackler in 2018, Jordan Allen, returns to head the defense.
The Dons opened the season last week against La Costa Canyon High School, but Saguaro might be one of the most talented and determined teams Cathedral Catholic has to play all season.
“Cathedral is a very good opponent, so we have to make sure we are dialed in,” Saguaro senior running back Israel Benjamin said. “We just need to aim to be 1-0 every week.”
Benjamin and the rest of the Saguaro team recognize what is at stake this season.
This is the first year the Arizona Interscholastic Association has implemented the Open Division playoffs, which puts eight of the top teams from the three biggest conferences at the end of the season into one playoff bracket. The format is similar to that of California, except it is played at the same time as the other conference playoffs rather than after those conclude.
Many believe only one team from the 4A Conference will be placed into the Open Division due to strength of schedule. That means even one loss to a tough out-of-state opponent could be detrimental to a team’s chances.
“If we want to win the state title, they’re a must-win for us,” Saguaro quarterback Tyler Beverett said. “For us, it starts in practice. We go up against tough competition all the time, so it will help us in games.”
There isn’t much Beverett hasn’t seen in terms of opposing defensive talent during his time under center for Saguaro. He goes up against perhaps one of the best defenses in the country every day in practice, led by cornerbacks Kelee Ringo and Jacobe Covington, linebackers Will Shaffer and Damian Sellers and defensive end Quintin Somerville.
The talent level Saguaro possesses this season both in terms of its starters and the depth behind them makes a case for being the best in school history. But each player knows in order to obtain that title, they first have to win one over the big schools.
“The season is a marathon, not a sprint and this one creates a lot of new challenges,” Mohns said. “I think we have what it takes to compete against those other teams. We just have to be laser-focused earlier in the season than maybe we were in the past.”
Saguaro was one of 12 teams invited to play in the 2019 Honor Bowl, which hosts one showcase in southern California and another up north every year. Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee will join Saguaro for the Honor Bowl to represent Arizona.
The showcase is sponsored by The Honor Group, a nonprofit organization founded in 2010 by Mark Soto. Soto coached prep football for 18 years and has two sons that have served a combined 31 months in the Army and Marines.
According to its website, The Honor Group’ mission is to educate students, coaches and the surrounding communities about the needs of military veterans.
Soto was asked to take over the Battle at the Capital in 2010. Since then, the series of games has changed names several times. In 2015, it was officially named the Honor Bowl and has flourished ever since.
Saguaro will take on Cathedral Catholic on Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7 p.m. at Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, Calif. To stay up to date on all the action from San Diego, follow @ZachAlvira and @VarsityXtra on Twitter.