An early look at what to watch in Division II this season:
Chaparral express: The Firebirds have won two straight championships, and with QB Connor Brewer and WR/CB Davonte Neal leading the way, many expect them to win a third. However, Peoria Centennial was beating Chaparral at halftime of last year’s title game, and has good talent coming back. Chaparral has depth issues on the line and defensively. Will it be smooth sailing, or will a three-peat fall short?
The fight for No. 4: Chaparral, Centennial and Marcos de Niza have laid claim to the top three spots in the division, and with good measure. The only postseason losses between them in the past two years have been to each other, and all have significant talent returning this year. There are some new programs entering the fray this year in Division II, and Tucson Salpointe, Vail Cienega, Notre Dame, Glendale Ironwood Ridge, Betty Fairfax and Glendale Deer Valley all could be contenders.
McClintock magic: The Chargers football program has a rich history, but the team struggled to a 2-8 finish last year. The team’s new coach is former Saguaro offensive coordinator Matt Lewis, and he is hoping that the successful spread offense he ran with the Sabercats translates at McClintock. Saguaro won three state championships in Lewis’ most recent four-year tenure at the school, and while a goal that high would be lofty, the Chargers would settle for noticeable forward progress.
Saturday: Chaparral vs. Las Vegas Bishop Gorman (at Univ. of Phoenix Stadium) — The Firebirds start their season with a bang, facing off against another one of the nation’s elite football programs. Hamilton defeated the Gaels 24-17 last year in Flagstaff, but Bishop Gorman returns star RB Shaquille Powell and star QB Jarrett Solomon from last year’s Nevada Class 4A champs.
Aug. 26: Notre Dame vs. Marcos de Niza: The Saints have won a pair of 4A Division II titles recently and made the semifinals last year, but now make the jump up a classification to take on schools with much bigger enrollments. They will get their first taste of life here against the Padres, perennial contenders who made the championship game two seasons ago and have designs of returning this year.
Sept. 2: Chaparral at Marcos de Niza — The Padres are expected to be one of the top contenders to Chaparral’s throne. These two teams haven’t played since the Firebirds defeated Marcos de Niza in the 5A-II title game two seasons ago, but both have the talent to meet there again this season.
Oct. 6: Horizon at Cactus Shadows — Both teams went 7-4 last season but made quick exits in the postseason. Cactus Shadows has a new coach in Greg Davis, and both teams would like to make a return trip to the postseason. This is an important clash for both sides.
Oct. 28: McClintock at Perry — While it would be a surprise to see either of these teams near the top of the contenders, making the playoffs is a realistic goal. This is the regular season finale, and the winner gets a power point boost when both could be batting for positioning.
Players to watch
Connor Brewer, Chaparral, Sr., QB: The Firebirds routed so many opponents last year that their signal-caller didn’t always put up jaw-dropping yardage totals. But rest assured, Brewer is special. He finished last season 148-for-222 for 2,677 yards passing with 37 touchdowns, six interceptions and a completion percentage of 67 percent. He has verbally committed to Texas and has held his own at camps against some of the top quarterback talent in the country. Brewer has Davonte Neal to throw to at wide receiver, and it should be another year of offensive fireworks at Chaparral.
Davonte Neal, Chaparral, Sr., DB/WR: Neal’s football prowess shouldn’t be limited to one facet of the game, but he is likely the best cornerback in the state. Last season, he rarely saw the ball thrown his way because of his fantastic coverage skills, which gave the Firebirds plenty of options defensively. Neal had five interceptions and nine pass deflections last season. Those numbers might go down this season, but not because Neal is regressing. Teams might avoid throwing at him altogether, which is the biggest sign of respect a cornerback can receive. Neal is also an exceptional kick returner and wide receiver.
Adam Pavlenko, Marcos de Niza, Sr., LB: The Padres have had a parade of stellar linebackers the past few years, from Anthony Rose to Ramon Abreu and, now, Pavlenko. The 5-foot-11, 198-pound senior finished last season with a team-high 133 tackles, more than doubling anyone else on Marcos. Pavlenko is an emotional leader and has a great nose for the football. The Padres are replacing several of their skill guys on offense, so Pavlenko and the rest of the defense may have to hold down the fort early on until everything begins hitting on all cylinders.
Jordan Gerhke, Notre Dame, Sr., QB: The Saints have petitioned up and will play in Division II this year, along with powers Chaparral, Centennial and Marcos de Niza. Notre Dame’s chances at going deep in the playoffs will be on the shoulders of Gehrke, who threw for 2,358 yards with 24 touchdowns and only four interceptions last season. The Saints made the semifinals of 4A-II last season and have won a pair of state titles in the division, but moving up will be a big test. Gehrke’s ability should keep the team competitive in the majority of its games.
Tommy Thornton, Marcos de Niza, Sr., QB: The Padres must replace a lot of skill position talent from last year, but they will return Thornton, who threw for 1,873 yards with 23 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season, completing 53.3 percent of his passes. His main target will be Paul Elvira, and since the Marcos de Niza defense should be solid, Thornton’s play could determine how well the team competes in Division II this year.