Centennial’s supposedly soft schedule looks tougher three weeks into the season.
While none of the other Division II favorites play the Coyotes, three dark horses off to fast starts do. Matchups with Tucson Ironwood Ridge and Deer Valley are down the road, but No. 7 Apollo (3-0) is ready to take its shot now.
The Hawks are in the spotlight Thursday in the Cox-7 game of the week at No. 1 Centennial (3-0). But Apollo wants to take a businesslike approach into the contest.
“We do have a lot of guys who are excited for this game, and that’s just because of who we’re playing,” Apollo coach Zach Threadgill said. “I don’t think anybody’s caught up in the hype. In no way are we making this game bigger than it needs to be. We’re approaching this like a big game because it’s our next game.”
Threadgill knows what his team’s up against. He said Centennial is “extremely athletic and very well coached,” and that the Coyotes deserve the No. 1 ranking in Division II.
However, competing with a dominant team in a big-game atmosphere is not foreign to the Hawks.
Apollo made the 4A-I quarterfinals each of the last two seasons, losing top top-seeded Tucson Canyon del Oro both times. Threadgill cited last year’s game in Tucson — where Apollo trailed the undefeated Dorados 14-9 entering the fourth quarter — as a good barometer for this game.
Heading into 2011, quarterback Jon Brown was one of the few sure things for the Hawks. The third-year starter is a consensus top- five quarterback in the state.
The dual-threat quarterback has been spectacular thus far, rushing for 443 yards and five touchdowns and passing for 324 yards and four more scores.
“He’s really a good quarterback, we just have to contain everything. He’s very fast. He’s really elusive,” Centennial defensive tackle Josh Stevens said. “If you’re not containing, he will find holes, and he will break for touchdowns.”
Conversely, it’s safe to say Brown hasn’t seen a front seven like this. Steven and Devin Leon plug up the middle, allowing the pass rushers to wreak havoc.
Junior defensive end Marcus Farria leads the charge, pacing the Coyotes in sacks (5.5) and tackles (15). Senior linebacker Walker Nunley (2.5 sacks) and junior defensive end Dominique Hodge (1.5 sacks) add pressure while senior linebacker Brennan Franklin and junior linebacker Wes Westbrook are sure tacklers.
Those statistics come in, for all intents and purposes, nine quarters of action. Centennial led Avondale La Joya 36-0 with almost nine minutes remaining in the second quarter when lightning delayed the game. La Joya decided to forfeit rather than resume the game Saturday.”
“We have been very pleased with our defense. It took them some time to jell, because we do a lot of stunts, and not run into each other,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “Our front seven is very strong and all of them can run.”
In the first three games against a higher level of competition, Apollo has proved its defensive mettle — and that it’s far more than a one-man team.
After limiting Peoria to 13 points on its home field, the Hawks followed up with a shutout of Phoenix South Mountain and locked down Ironwood, except for a 78-yard scoring pass.
Linebacker Sam Martinez — also one of Brown’s top targets as a tight end — leads Apollo in tackles and sacks, and has two interceptions. Ballhawk senior defensive back Zachary Becerra already has four picks this year.
Threadgill said the defense’s progress has been the most heartening development early in the season. Apollo returned only three starters, and several former part-time players and a handful of sophomores have stepped up.
They’ll face a balanced and multi-faceted Centennial offense. In addition to their duties in the defensive backfield, senior Zach Hoffpauir (214 yards, six touchdowns) and junior Jalen Ortiz (239 yards) split the carries.
Both are threats as receivers, along with seniors Tyler Beenau, Hayden Sovacki and Troy Hawthorne.
Apollo has some other weapons as well. Senior tailback Richie Martinez (208 yards on 34 carries) and junior wide receiver Abraham Mendivil (22 yards per catch, three touchdowns) prevent opponents from concentrating solely on Brown. Senior Daniel Cruz leads the offensive line, and Stevens said on all the film he’s seen, they’ve given Brown plenty of time to make plays.
“It’s been going really well. All of the young players on our team have stepped up, and they’ve shown a lot of leadership, which is hard as a young player,” Brown said. “It’s been great. It’s really shocked me how they came in and played so well.”
Still, the focal point of this game is Brown, Martinez and Apollo’s offensive line against Centennial’s front seven. Taylor said Brown is similar to former Chandler star quarterback Brett Hundley (now at UCLA).
“Jon Brown pops off the screen. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast and he can make all the throws,” Taylor said. “They look like they have very strong, powerful kids up front. They’re a quality opponent.”
Threadgill said Brown has always had calm demeanor even as a sophomore. His quiet confidence and level-headed approach should help the Hawks on a big stage.
“On the sidelines, you wouldn’t know if we were tied, down seven or up three touchdowns,” Threadgill said. “That’s what has me excited about Thursday, because he never gets too emotional.”