Thanks in-part to the new scheduling system and playoff venue conflicts, being on the brink of October now means we’re 50 percent through the regular season.
It means the best is yet to come in the chase for what will be elusive playoff spots under this new format, but it also allows us a chance to pause and pay homage to the best (and worst) of the first five weeks from fall 2011.
Whether the yester-weeks are an accurate prognostication of future performance, that’s for the players and coaches to decide.
Best team: Hamilton
The Huskies lost 10 offensive starters from last year and haven’t missed a beat. The defense looks like the best one in the state, and after leaning on wide receiver Kendyl Taylor early on, the offense is beginning to balance out and get more dangerous. Hamilton has knocked off Mountain Pointe and Desert Ridge already this season and despite a new cast of characters, is again the favorite to win a fourth consecutive state championship.
Honorable mention: Basha, Saguaro, Desert Vista, Brophy
Biggest disappointment: Mesquite
Injuries have been a factor here, and there’s no question a new coach (Matt Gracey) and new system was going to require time and major adjustments, but it feels like the Wildcats have more in the cupboard then we’ve seen so far. Despite what a cursory glance at the scoreboards might indicate, the defense is still good, but, again has spent way too much time on the field and gets worn down because the offense has done so little. The Wildcats (2-3) have a solid chance to make a move in the second half, but a .500 record against a tough schedule in this new alignment might not be enough for postseason play.
Dishonorable mention: Valley Christian, Mountain Pointe, Mesa
Breakout star: Nate Phillips, Basha
The Bears wide receiver was second on the team in receptions and yards as a sophomore last season, and is now one of the state’s top targets as a junior. Phillips leads all of Arizona in receiving yards (610) and is third in receptions (37). The Bears are averaging 55 points per game at the midway point, and the connection of quarterback Kyle Duran to Phillips is a big reason why.
Honorable mention: Higley QB Eric Kump; Scottsdale Prep QB Aidan Wright; Paradise Valley QB Ryan Finley.
Most pleasant surprise: Poston Butte
Surprise, of course, comes out of the element that we don’t know what to expect. That works well for first-year varsity programs such as the Broncos, who are 5-0 heading into a big matchup against a really good Coolidge team. Wins against Higley (which took two days because of the lightning postponement) and Campo Verde last week help legitimize Mike De La Torre’s team in beating a quality opponent and showing the Broncos can win the tough, last-second nail-biters (10-7 against C.V.). Things get really tough from here for the Broncos (Coolidge, Williams Field, Queen Creek, Perry), but 5-0 for a program in its infancy is impressive.
Honorable mention: Queen Creek, Seton Catholic
Best player: D.J. Foster, Saguaro
He plays running back, Wildcat quarterback and safety, and the senior plays them each exceedingly well. Foster has been the offense’s ignition, rushing 80 times for 1,084 yards and 21 touchdowns this season as the Sabercats have started the year 5-0. If Saguaro advances deep into the postseason, Foster has a great shot at breaking Arizona’s single-season touchdown record of 51, set by Nathan Wize of Tucson Sabino in 1997. Saguaro has sent 27 kids to Division I colleges in the past four years, and Foster is looking like the best of the bunch.
Honorable mention: Hamilton DB Reggie Daniels; Chaparral WR/DB Davonte Neal; Basha QB Kyle Duran.
Best coach: Bernie Busken, Basha
Maybe the team best-equipped to beat Hamilton is the Chandler school? Basha has always been good, but for the first time they could be on the verge of being elite. The Bears appear better-balanced offensively in Busken’s second year at the helm, and he gets the most out of his kids, even the already-talented kids like QB Kyle Duran and WR Nate Phillips. We’ll learn more on Oct. 6 (at Desert Ridge) and, of course, Oct. 20 (vs. Hamilton).
Honorable mention: Tom Joseph (Corona del Sol), Dana Zupke (Pinnacle), Steve Belles (Hamilton)
Best game: Paradise Valley 40, Thunderbird 39 (OT)
The Trojans trailed 33-7 with 1:33 left in the third quarter, but pulled off a comeback for the ages. Paradise Valley tied the game when quarterback Ryan Finley scored on a quarterback sneak with two seconds remaining, then stopped Thunderbird running back Connor Hustead just short of the goal-line on an overtime two-point conversion attempt for the win. Paradise Valley needed a punt block for a safety and a Hail Mary down to the 1-yard line in the last 1:05 of the game just to get it to overtime. “I’ve never won a state title, but even if you win a state title, I can’t imagine being more excited than I was after that stopped two-point conversion,” Trojans coach Donnie Yantis said.
Honorable mention: Dobson 31, Desert Mountain 30 (OT); Basha 58, Chandler 41; Chaparral 22, Salpointe 21; Poston Butte 10, Campo Verde 7.
Best player you’d never heard of: T.J. Thomas, Dobson
The Mustangs’ senior running back couldn’t get off the bench a season ago because of maturity issues and watched as a sophomore got the bulk of the team’s carries. After an offseason of dedication, Thomas started this season with a bang, rushing for 375 yards and four touchdowns in a season-opening win over Westwood. He leads the state in rushing yards with 1,279 and is a big reason why Dobson is 3-2 and in playoff contention.
Honorable mention: Williams Field WR Sean Schweichler; Desert Mountain WR Mark Andrews; Desert Vista WR Kaleb Germinaro.
Biggest upset: Poston Butte over Higley
It took two days and withstanding a last-minute spree by Higley once play resumed Saturday, but Poston Butte served notice with this 48-39 victory against Higley on Sept. 9 and 10. RB Dustin French and his Broncos teammates ran for 456 yards as a 14-0 third-quarter run eventually held up.
Honorable mention: Gilbert over Mesquite; Desert Mountain over Mountain View; Queen Creek-Perry
Best chance of a turnaround: Mountain Pointe
Requisites for a turnaround require a favorable schedule (check), good coaching (check) and kids who can understand the big picture (TBD). 95 percent of schools in the state would be 2-3 (or worse) if they played the Pride’s schedule of five games that included Hamilton, Desert Vista and Chandler. The Pride have issues on offense and with injuries, but after this week (vs. Brophy), it’s Corona del Sol, Yuma Kofa, Mountain View and Westwood. If the Pride can’t beat Brophy on Friday, a clean sweep might still leave wonders about whether they can beat an elite team, but four or five more wins might be required to make the playoffs, and that’s Step 1.
Honorable mention: Marcos de Niza; Notre Dame