Some things have changed with the times in Cactus and Peoria’s storied football rivalry.
But the basics remain the same. As it has been most years since the mid-1980s, Cactus’ Larry Fetkenhier and Peoria’s Doug Clapp lead teams with state title dreams into a passionate, physical battle for bragging rights.
“Whether (Clapp) and I like it or not, our careers wil always be intertwined because of the rivalry,” Fetkenhier said. “I know there’s some skill kids on both teams and some secondary kids on both teams, but the initial assaults for both teams will be in the pits.”
The rivalry resumed in 2007 after a six-year layoff, with the teams facing off for two years in the 4A-I West Valley Region. Cactus moved into 4A-II the last two seasons and played Peoria before both teams began league play.
It’s another September showdown this year. And after realignment these longtime foes are competing in the same division again — the new Division II, which encompasses about half of the old 4A-I and most of 4A-II.
Cactus (1-0) enters at No. 2 in West Valley Prep’s Division II rankings, while Peoria (1-1) is No. 10. And thanks to Cactus’ close wins in the last two matchups, the target on the Cobras’ backs has grown.
“We want to take the crown back. We lost the last two years, and don’t want to drop a third one,” Peoria senior safety Christian Tejada said.
In this new era of the matchup, both teams have added modern flairs to their offenses. Cactus runs the ball more than it did two decades ago out of its zone read option scheme. Run-first Peoria also incorporated the spread in recent years, but usually floods the field with receivers out of it.
This year, the Panthers made their biggest change yet on defense. Peoria switched to a 3-3-5 look designed to get more of its trademark speed on the field.
“They’re learning. Them feeling comfortable (with the 3-3) and comfortable with the seven or eight guys that are new helps,” Clapp said.
In some ways, however, the changes are like a new coat of paint on a sturdy house. Both teams still play physical football, emphasize fundamentals and have rosters deep enough to allow players to concentrate on one side of the ball.
And both coaches know the game will be determined by which team is able to keep its emotional edge without suffering breakdowns in execution.
“Like always, they’re very solid in everything they do,” Clapp said. “You’ve got to play mistake football against them. It’s a very emotional game. Sometimes it doesn’t matter who’s the better team, it’s just who can get control as far as mistakes in the kicking game.”
In terms of experience, the Cobras and Panthers will pit strength against strength. Cactus’ veterans are in the middle of its defense, with Ledesma, linebackers Guy Williams and Chris Jennings and safety Kameel Al Khouri — all seniors — leading the charge.
Peoria’s offense, while boasting few returning starters, has plenty of varsity experience in the form of senior quarterback Nick Salute, senior tackle Curtis McGuire and junior tailback Ira Rojas.
Salute gives a bit of a different look than predecessors Caleb Gillispie and Vinny Spano, who were most comfortable throwing deep. Salute is accurate short and on crossing routes, and passed for four touchdowns and 207 yards last week.
“We’re going to have less time to get to him,” said senior defensive tackle Mike Ledesma.
The Cactus offense and Peoria defense got to work out some kinks, ironically, against the same Moon Valley team. First-time quarterback Michael Putko threw for 78 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 92 yards and another score in the opener, while new starting tailback Josh Aguirre gained 112 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries.
“Their quarterback runs well and he runs hard,” Tejada said. “They’re really tricky with their option stuff.”
Peoria is prepared for Cactus’ dual-threat quarterback from opening the season against Apollo’s Jon Brown, considered by many to be the best dual-threat quarterback in the state.
Tejada and Peoria’s defense recovered from that 24-13 loss to Apollo by playing the Rockets and limiting Moon Valley to 35 yards. And Tejada is part of the Panthers’ strongest unit, along with senior cornerback Chris Chapman and Nakeem Lewis. Senior linebackers Bryce Perez and Michael Archuleta lead another strong unit.
Both coaches said they gleaned little from facing the same opponent so early in the season because Moon Valley was so overmatched, losing 53-0 to Cactus and 43-0 to Peoria.
Of greater concern to Fetkenhier is that the Cobras are one game short in preparation. Cactus was slated to play North Pointe Prep in Week 2, but the smaller Phoenix school dropped football.
With an almost entirely new offense and some new players on defense, Fetkenhier said it’s tough to know what type of team he has based on a single one-sided game.
“I was more angry all this Friday that everybody else is playing a game and we’re sitting on our butts. Maybe it’s good in the middle of the year, but I don’t think anybody wants a bye in week two,” Fetkenhier said. “You need to play games. I’m angry about it. I think it’s unfair to our kids, it’s unfair to our school.”
Still, while both teams have question marks in spots, there’s no doubt that the fans ringing Cactus’ field will see a high-level high school football game. That also hasn’t changed much in the past 26 years.
“It’s important to us and it’s important to them. Peoria’s always going to bring their best game for us,” Jennings said. “You’ve got to be prepared for that and always bring your best.”