Hard to believe, but the East Valley’s first football game of the season takes place this weekend, as Desert Vista and Palo Verde (Las Vegas) will tussle in the Barry Sollenberger Classic on Saturday night at University of Phoenix Stadium.
So why wait? Here are ten storylines to consider as the season begins in full next week:
Will Hamilton rebound?
The Huskies were the big favorite in last year’s championship game but were dominated from start to finish by Desert Vista. With offense a concern, Hamilton is sitting in the unfamiliar position of No. 2 in the Tribune’s preseason rankings. The Huskies have the requisite talent to win another title, but Brophy is ahead of them to start the year. Will Hamilton bounce back, or will they watch for the second straight year as another team hoists the championship trophy?
Red Mountain coach Ron Wisniewski has the program where he wants it, and believes the Mountain Lions have the personnel to surprise teams. Desert Mountain went 4-6 a season ago but returns the potent aerial duo of quarterback Kyle Allen and wide receiver Mark Andrews. Poston Butte and Campo Verde are both aiming to become a fixture in the Division III top-10 rankings. Chandler has state title-caliber talent again. Will any of these teams make a move? Are there other sleepers ready to rise?
How will the new guys fare?
From the struggling programs (Skyline, Dobson, Westwood, Apache Junction), to the middling ones (Gilbert, Arcadia) to the champions (Chaparral, Saguaro), several teams have new coaches atop the program. For Jason Mohns and Dave Huffine at Saguaro and Chaparral, respectively, the goal is to keep the status quo set before them. Many others are reclamation projects, in which a change of culture or new life needs to be breathed into the programs. Who will succeed and who will falter?
Can the champions repeat?
Three East Valley programs — Desert Vista, Chaparral and Saguaro — won state titles a year ago, and all three are ranked in the top-3 to start this season. Last year, the Firebirds and Sabercats were the favorites to win championships and did so. This season, Saguaro is once again a preseason No. 1, but Chaparral (No. 2 in Division II) and Desert Vista (No. 3 in Division III) need to reload and fill substantial holes. Saguaro might have the best chance at another state title among the three programs.
Eye on Basha
The Bears made the state semifinals last year, and there seems to be little doubt that coach Bernie Busken will get the most out of the players on his team. The problem is, several talented athletes transferred this offseason, including running backs J.J. Husar and Myles Smith, and wide receiver Dionte Sykes. Junior Rajhan Meriwether earned more carries at the end of 2011, so if he and Nate Phillips can deliver, the offense should be good, but the blow to the team’s depth could also be a factor.
Will Mountain View make a jump?
Chad DeGrenier’s track record of success in his second and third years of rebuilding projects has been good. His Cactus Shadows team went 0-10 in 2004, then 5-6 in 2005 before finishing 15-0 with the 4A-II state title in 2006. The team then went from 3-7 in 2007 and 2008 to 11-1 in 2009. DeGrenier’s teams have consistently used a sophomore as the varsity quarterback and improved as the signal caller got older. Mountain View went 4-6 last year with sophomore Chase Funk under center. Will 2012 and 2013 be fruitful as Funk matures?
Is Desert Ridge here to stay?
The Jaguars made the state championship game in 2010 and the semifinals last year, losing to vaunted Hamilton both times. However, that run was sparked largely by the dynamic duo of Jordan Becerra and Joey Counts. With those two gone — as well as Parker Rasmussen, Damani Mosby and Alex Barrett — Desert Ridge has some restocking to do. Does the program have the depth to remain elite now that the stars have moved on, or will it move back down to the middle of the pack?
Can Williams Field or Queen Creek break through?
The Bulldogs have made the semifinals and quarterfinals the past two seasons before being derailed by Saguaro both times. The Sabercats are the two-time defending champions and preseason favorites again. However, Queen Creek has nine starters back on offense and a key transfer in quarterback/defensive back Ivan Jones. Williams Field, meanwhile, made the 4A-II title game in 2010 before losing in the first round of the playoffs last year. The Black Hawks have a versatile running back in Sean Schweichler who will make that team go. Both teams have been in contention the past two seasons. Can either get past Saguaro — as well as Cactus and Sabino — to win it all?
Smaller schools’ ascension
Three East Valley schools went undefeated in the 2011 regular season: Hamilton, Brophy and ... Seton Catholic. The Sentinels were shut down by Lakeside Blue Ridge in the Div. IV semifinals but another trip could be in store with its advantageous schedule. Poston Butte quietly became a force under Mike De La Torre, and the Broncos join San Tan Foothills and Scottsdale Prep (Div. VI) as young programs on an upward swing. Tempe Prep is proving itself to be a force, and Scottsdale Christian’s furious finish and waves of returning kids from 2011 puts the Eagles on the rise again. While Valley Christian has struggled the past couple year to regain its stronghold on Division V-sized teams, more small schools appear to be climbing than crashing.
Spanning the globe
East Valley football programs are branching out like never before. Hamilton used to be the school on the move (Florida, Ohio) but the rise of the Barry Sollenberger Classic (Desert Vista vs. Palo Verde) begins an early-season stretch of jet-setting for a couple EV schools. Brophy hosts nationally-ranked Santa Margarita (Calif.) on Aug. 25, and the Huskies and Notre Dame are headed to Ireland in September to face schools from California and Philadelphia, respectively. Will this be the biggest showcase of Arizona vs. everyone else to date?