Shadow Ridge unveils its varsity football team to the rest of Arizona this year, its first as a full Arizona Interscholastic Association member.
The Stallions showed promise against other independent schools last year, and a dominant freshman team made waves. But head coach Rico Tipton knows how much the school tucked in southwest Surprise will step up in class this year.
“Our progress is pretty typical. We’re right about where I’d like to see us this year,” Tipton said. “The schedule is going to be a lot tougher. We’ve made a lot of strides, not just on the football field but the school itself.”
One of the few benefits of being a new school in a growing area are the kids that move in, or transfer back to the neighborhood after starting their careers at a more established school. Shadow Ridge is bolstered by both scenarios this year.
Through their first three years, the Stallions showcased speed.
“Our very first year, when we only had freshmen and sophomores, we had nine kids make state in track and field,” Tipton said. “All of those kids are on the field right now.”
There’s size up front, but all of the big boys are sophomores. Enter a pair of senior transfers from Willow Canyon, who will provide a necessary balance of strong blocking, skill and experience.
Tight end Joey Kennedy (6-6 245) arrives with a 4.3 GPA and looks from Ivy League. Fullback Patrick Pontarelli also started for the Wildcats last year and has looked good throughout camp, Tipton said. Both arrive for their lone season at Shadow Ridge with a sense of urgency.
“It’s our last guaranteed downs on a football field. I don’t want to leave here this year regretting anything,” Kennedy said. “We’re a young team and people don’t expect us to do much. I’m excited to surprise a couple of people this year.”
On offense, that youth manifests itself in the backfield and on the line. Junior Ronnie Rodgers won a position battle with last year’s starting quarterback, Kevin Broich, and will direct the offense — basically a veer look with a few less options.
Option one figures to be sophomore Chris Salsberry, who stood out from a host of ballcarriers last season. He saw spot duty early on before breaking out in a 172-yard performance against Vista Grande.
Juniors Quise Wilcox, Julian Torres and Josh Kindred saw action at tailback and wide receiver last year and figure to help with the carries and catches again.
Senior wide receiver Devin Brown joins Salsberry as the main big play threats. The speedster snared only 11 passes last year, but gained 376 receiving yards, including a pair of 75-yard touchsown dashes.
Three sophomores serve as massive building blocks up front. Center Justin Pontarelli started every game as a freshman, and Patrick’s younger brother is not so little at 300 pounds. Nick McComb (6-5, 270), and Sam Vanstraten (6-2, 250) starred for the freshman team and will step into starting spots.
“Our problem is, we’re so young up front,” Tipton said. “But the upside is, they’re a great group with great size.”
While the big boys will see sometime in the interior defensive line, the emphasis of Shadow Ridge’s 5-2 alignment is getting as much speed on the field as possible.
Junior Vincent Kieu is one lineman who will concentrate on defense, but the Stallions’ strength is in the backfield. The depth allowed promising sophomore Isaac Gonzalez to move up from safety to linebacker. Junior cornerback Marcus Williams added to the standout unit when he moved in this summer from Kellis. Tipton said he’s a sleeper college prospect.
Williams joins Kindred at corner. Sophomore free safety Gabe Jordon moonlighted on varsity last year and senior strong safety Anthony Vaquera picked off three passes in 2010 which tied for the team lead with Torres, and is a team leader.
“If we can do a good job on first and second downs and force people into passing situations, we’ll be in good shape,” Tipton said.
Dictating terms won’t be easy for Shadow Ridge, who was handed a slate full of established programs like Apache Junction, Desert Edge and Peoria.
Then there’s the three highlights of the schedule, games against disrtict rivals Dysart, Valley Vista and Willow Canyon. The Stallions will be the first Dysart Unified team to play all other high schools in the district.
A case can be made for each game becoming Shadow Ridge’s main rivalry. Dysart is in the same section and shares some feeder schools. They’re also a more realistic target than the larger Surprise schools.
Valley Vista is the only Division I school the Stallions will play. But its the Oct. 21 trip up Loop 303 to Willow Canyon that all the Stallions, not just Pontarelli and Kennedy, have circled.
“I’m not going to let my underclassmen get teased for it in the upcoming years,” Brown said.