It’s not the West Valley’s football festival anymore. Crowds no longer pack Hanhila Stadium at Glendale Community College, as they did in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Still, any time Cactus (1-0) and Peoria (1-0) get together on the gridiron is an event. This year, the Cobras and Panthers will not battle for a region title, and are not in the same classification, yet the matchup remains special.
“It’s still the old memories, the old rivalry,” Peoria coach Doug Clapp said. “It doesn’t matter that we’re 4A-I and they’re 4A-II.”
His longtime counterpart, Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier, said it will take time to build the rivalry to its previous high. The schools did not play during Peoria’s 10-year stay in 5A, resuming the series in 2007.
If the intensity is down a notch because of the break in the rivalry and the number of newer schools in the area, one thing hasn’t changed. These are two quality high school football teams, which should make for a high-level game at Peoria Friday night.
“We’re going to have to play very well to beat a very good team,” Fetkenhier said.
Indeed it appears the Panthers, despite having to replace 19 starters, could extend the program’s srting of state semifinal appearances to four years.
“I think our potential is to be great,” senior running back A.J. Taylor said.
Taylor and with fellow senior L.A. Dowell power Peoria’s trademark running attack. If the opening 28-19 win at Buckeye is an indication, the ground game will roll along without Jamal Miles – arguably the state’s top back in 2008.
Dowell (145 yards and a touchdown) and Taylor (99 yards and a touchdown) paced the offense. With junior Caleb Gillispie starting his first game and Buckeye using a lot of two-way players, Clapp went even more run-heavy than usual.
He said the passing game will play a bigger role this week. But both coaches know the foundation of Peoria’s offense remains the same.
“They look like a Peoria team to me,” he said. “They line up in the I formation a lot and try to get their backs to the outside.”
And, at least for now, this Peoria team is enjoying the lack of attention heaped on the 2007 and 2008 squads.
“Being unknown is probably the best thing that could have happened for this team,” senior linebacker Devin Yabo said. “We had a lot of big time players — Jamal and Vinny (Spano) and congratulations to them — but this is our year. I think as of right now we look really strong.”
Cactus also lost some marquee players, though not as many as their rival. And, like Peoria, the Cobras showed promise in their opener, a 47-21 shootout with Scottsdale Coronado.
In that game, Cactus also showcased two running threats. Unlike Peoria, one of those breakaway backs is the quarterback, senior Brody Ray.
Against Coronado, Ray rushed for 115 yards on 15 carries, supplementing senior Allan Woods, who amassed 236 yards on 30 rushes.
“They probably run a little bit more than they have in the past,” Clapp said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t throw.”
Though Ray struggled with accuracy, completing only eight of his 18 attempts, he was able to spread the ball around and throw two touchdowns. Clapp said facing a dual-threat quarterback puts a different twist on typical preparations for Cactus.
On the defensive end, both coaches noted the other team’s aggressive linebacker play. Clapp and Fetkenhier are counting on their secondaries to improve this week, now that the first-game jitters are past.
The veteran field generals see promise in their teams. Now, the challenge is developing cohesion and minimizing errors.
“All those mistakes we made, they’re correctable things,” Fetkenhier said.
The less experienced Peoria team will benefit from having an extra week to work out the kinks.
“It gave us a chance to see what we could do with other kids,” Clapp said. “For us it was very helpful. It wasn’t getting prepared for Cactus, it was more trying to make us a better football team.”