Each year, more innocence gets sapped from high school football.
In the premier matchups every Friday night, teams are stocked with players who either open-enrolled or transferred to East Valley powerhouses.
This isn’t some new phenomenon, of course, and in order to compete in today’s game, it’s a necessity.
Sometimes, though, there’s a quick jolt back to reality — and for all the super teams so common in today’s landscape, there are still ordinary football players within those rosters making a difference, for better or worse.
Blocked punts, missed field goals, special teams penalties, botched extra points — mistakes in the kicking game ran the gamut on Friday night, leading to beautiful chaos and affecting the outcome of the week’s two biggest games.
Mountain Pointe, the top-ranked team in Division I, had a pair of chances to beat No. 5 Chandler in regulation, but two short field goal attempts sailed wide. The game went to overtime, where the Wolves subsequently missed an extra point following a touchdown. The Pride found the end zone to tie it, but missed an extra point of their own. However, an encroachment penalty on Chandler gave Mountain Pointe another try, and John Abercrombie hit the game-winner for a 28-27 victory.
Down the road in Tempe, Marcos de Niza was favored to beat Tucson Ironwood Ridge in a big Division II matchup, but a pair of blocked punts put the Padres in an early hole and they never recovered.
Many of the best players on Mountain Pointe, Chandler and Marcos de Niza didn’t start at the schools or open enrolled from outside the boundaries. College coaches are quite familiar with all three and several of the stars will be playing college football in the not-too-distant future.
But for all the rampant school-hopping by skill athletes and linemen, no one ever fawns over a kicker or punter, a special teams blocker or a gunner. These specialized niches are meticulously combed through on the college and pro level, but in high school, it’s still a crapshoot.
Kickers are sometimes grabbed from the soccer team and special teams are often comprised of backups. It’s not uncommon to see a hulking offensive lineman do kickoffs because he has the strongest leg.
While special teams gets little attention in the mid-week analysis of matchups, it often plays a critical role.
Saguaro doesn’t win its second championship during this unworldy run without a last-second, game-winning field goal in 2008. Notre Dame and Williams Field had back-to-back kickoff returns for touchdowns in their wild semifinal game in 2010. Mountain Pointe blocked an extra point and then held its breath as Brophy missed a late field goal in a 13-12 quarterfinal win in 2010.
Onside kicks, fake punts and other trickery makes the coaches depend on kids who normally aren’t playing big roles with the game on the line.
The offensive and defensive stars get the attention leading into a game, but it’s the everyday Joe who blocks a punt or makes a kick who can still end up the hero — and that’s what makes special teams at the high school level so special.
This, my friends, is a week to be a fan of high school football. Six of the best teams in Division I face off, as do a pair of defending state champions in Desert Vista (Div. I) and Saguaro (Div. III).
Even though Chandler and Hamilton are only in the middle tier of the top-10 right now, it’s still the biggest draw of the week. The Huskies have never lost to the Wolves, but this matchup gets the entire city of Chandler giddy, and once again it features a pair of teams with the talent to win a state title.
Over in Mesa, Red Mountain turned heads with an upset of Brophy a couple weeks back, and now it gets a tough test against Desert Ridge. The teams split a pair of games last season, as the Jaguars avenged a regular season loss by beating Red Mountain in the playoffs. While Desert Ridge was favored last year, Red Mountain will be this year.
Mountain Pointe is 3-0 against Hamilton, Desert Vista and Chandler this season and now faces preseason No. 1 Brophy. The Pride have won those first three games by an average of two points and this could be another hotly contested matchup.
Desert Vista trailed Saguaro 28-6 at halftime of last year’s game, but rallied for a 31-28 victory. The Sabercats found their groove on Friday with a 67-14 rout of Cactus.
Notre Dame at Chaparral is pivotal because both teams are off to uncharacteristically slow starts, while Pinnacle-Mountain View is a matchup of two teams playing well.
Some East Valley staples have struggled early on, but Mesquite at Dobson and Mesa at Westwood should both be competitive.
QB fireworks: Last season was the year of the running back, and this season it’s the quarterbacks’ turn. It was another banner week, led by Tempe’s Emanuel Gant (409 yards, 5 TD), Red Mountain’s Mason Thorman (state-record-trying six TD passes), Marcos de Niza’s Josh Eckley (374 yards, 3 TD), Seton Catholic’s David Gesicki (307 passing yards, 6 total TD), Paradise Valley’s Ryan Finley (267 yards, 5 TD), Notre Dame’s Nick Duckworth (333 yards, 3 TD) and Desert Mountain’s Kyle Allen (393 yards, 5 TD). Three yards and a cloud of dust is long gone.
Hype: In the past few seasons, many of the games with top billing ended up as clunkers. Not this year. Mountain Pointe faced off with Chandler in this week’s marquee matchup, and the Pride escaped with a 28-27 overtime win. Mountain Pointe has already played in thrillers against Hamilton and Desert Vista, while Basha-Chandler and Red Mountain-Brophy were also classics. Next week has the best matchups yet, and let’s hope for more suspense.
Highland: The Hawks couldn’t hold on to a three-point lead late against Basha, but made a giant leap forward by staying competitive throughout. Highland is 3-2 on the season and seems to have the look of a playoff team. If the Hawks can get there, few elite teams will want to play them in the first round.
Marcos de Niza: With a win on Friday, the Padres likely would have finished the year undefeated and grabbed at least a top-2 seed in the Division II postseason. Instead, mistakes were prevalent and costly as Ironwood Ridge drove up from Tucson and left with a victory. Marcos de Niza will slide down the rankings and is no longer seen as the main challenger to Centennial in Division II.
Poston Butte: The Broncos turned the ball over five times and were shut out in a game many thought they would win against Campo Verde. Poston Butte still has games on the schedule against Perry, Queen Creek and Williams Field, and will probably need to upset one of those teams to qualify for the postseason.