Centennial (3-0) is getting used to locking horns with, and beating, the megapowers of Arizona football. Thursday, the Coyotes look to add Phoenix Brophy Prep (3-0) to the list.
The Broncos - 5A-I state champions in 2005 and 2007 and runners-up last year - will visit Centennial, 14388 N. 79th Ave., in Peoria, at 7 p.m.
Brophy and Centennial will play this year and next. In the previous two-year scheduling block, the Coyotes challenged Chandler Hamilton, the most successful 5A school of this decade. In 2005 and 2006, Centennial's first two years as a 5A school, the behemoth on the schedule was Mesa Mountain View, a school with eight 5A football titles in its trophy case.
Centennial coach Richard Taylor said playing the state's top programs since the move to 5A was not a conscious plan.
"We never asked to play any of those teams," Taylor said. "We just started winning and someone, I don't know who, said 'that would be a good game.'"
Centennial-Brophy will be one of the marquee games this season, but the vibe is different than the first meetings with Mountain View (2005) and Hamilton (2007). The Coyotes hope the end result in different, too.
In 2005, the team headed to Mesa for its season opener. While that squad was confident heading there, the looks on the faces of Centennial's 12 new starters changed once they arrived.
"The eyes don't lie," Taylor said. "There were a lot of kids that said 'wow,' before that game."
Mountain View won 35-13. In 2006, Centennial beat the Toros 34-21. In 2007, the Coyotes visited Hamilton and raced to an 18-0 lead, only to see the Huskies strike back for 35 unanswered points.
Centennial hasn't lost any of the 29 games it's played since that day. Included in that streak was last year's 35-16 victory against Hamilton.
That win marked the Coyotes last chance to play David to the opposition’s Goliath. Going into the Brophy game, Centennial is the team considered Arizona's best, and the squad sporting a No. 8 national ranking in the USA Today poll.
Taylor said the extra attention has not caused the players to lose focus.
"I've not heard them one time mention anything about state or national rankings," he said. "They've done a good job of just concentrating on the next opponent."
This week the focus has been on one of the few teams in the state capable of matching up with the Coyotes. Brophy, as always, is solid across the board. The Broncos trademark blend of superlative coaching and intelligent, physical football is evident from their first three games, Taylor said.
"They're not going to give you anything," he said.
And while Brophy coach Scooter Molander has an equal degree of respect for Centennial's team and the program Taylor runs, his team won't be in awe once they arrive in Peoria.
"As much as it matters who you're playing, it matters who you are," Molander said. "It's up to us to control our destiny."
Brophy brings an offense that's a bit ahead of schedule. Senior tailback Max Leonesio, a 2,081-yard rusher last year, was expected to be the bedrock of the attack, and he's rolled up 334 yards.
Sophomore quarterback Chase Knox has been the early surprise, at least to those outside the Brophy program. In his first three games, Knox is completing passes at a nearly 70 percent clip. He's thrown for 591 yards and nine touchdowns.
"He's had success because he's put in the work mentally and physically," Molander said. "He watches more film than any other quarterback I've had here."
While Knox has not played a defense like Centennial's, Coyote players and coaches are impressed with how well he complements the Leonesio-led ground game.
"We have never played against a back that has gained 2,000 yards, so that's a motivation," Taylor said. "The quarterback is a budding star and he may well become a star as a sophomore."
The Broncos will run into a first-team defense that has controlled teams and hasn't needed to play four quarters yet. In the first three quarters against Reno (Nev.) McQueen, Centennial allowed seven points. Chandler managed 14 points in three quarters and Willow Canyon was held scoreless.
Linebackers Austin Arias and Austin Garday, cornerback Kyle Coffey and safety Anthony Hughes - all seniors, returning starters and Division One prospects - form the heart of the defense. The defensive line in front of them is all new, and while its not as dominant as last year's unit, the front four is holding up well.
"Dylan Lusk, Roc Lopez and Dylan Eastridge are getting a good push up front," Arias said.
Brophy also sported one of the state's best defensive lines in 2008, and lost most of its top linemen to graduation. The Broncos have allowed only 23 points so far.
Containing Centennial will prove difficult. The Coyotes have posted 155 points, led by Hughes (398 rushing yards and six touchdowns), senior quarterback Dain McFarland (436 yards passing and seven touchdowns) and an offensive line that's garnered as much national attention as the team.
"Centennial has a very big offensive line and very good running backs," Molander said. "We need to remember our roles and fly to the football."
The target's on Centennial Thursday night, another measure of how far the program has come. But by now, after all the big games this senior class has been in, they're well equipped to handle the pressure.
"Maybe we'll be up a little (for this game), but we've been there before," Arias said.