Since its 5A football debut in 2001, Mesa Skyline has been a whipping boy for the five other Mesa schools.
With enrollment figures a fraction of those found at Mountain View, Mesa, Dobson, Red Mountain and Westwood, the Coyotes staggered to a 1-29 record against their city rivals.
Six years was long enough.
After six games of the 2007 season, Skyline already has set a school record for wins in a season (five), is guaranteed at least a .500 season for the first time, and is a virtual lock to reach its first postseason.
Dropping their sister schools from the schedule helped, but the main reason for the
Coyotes’ rise is realignment. Skyline now resides in the 5A Division II Pima Region.
“Your ability to focus is a whole lot easier when you’re 5-1 than when you’re 1-5,” Skyline coach Pete Jonovich said. “What’s also helping us this year is we’re not as beat up. When you play the competition we did you end up missing three or four kids who were hurt and couldn’t practice.
“We’re fresher and not missing the amount of kids we did last year. That makes our practices more brisk and we get more work done.”
Schools such as Skyline, Tempe Marcos de Niza and Mesa Desert Ridge are the football success stories the Arizona Interscholastic Association envisioned when it approved a split in the 5A and 4A conferences.
The same can be said for 4A-II schools such as Phoenix Arcadia and Scottsdale Coronado.
“This is the only way to go,” Arcadia coach Jim Bevell said. “It’s the greatest thing in the world for our school and the kids. You play every week with schools your size. The kids know they can go out on a Friday night and compete. That’s the bottom line.”
Arcadia and Coronado didn’t qualify for the playoffs in their final year in the one-division 4A alignment (2004). But Arcadia has qualified for the postseason both years in Division II and Coronado has done so once.
“Week in and week out you have competitive games now,” Coronado coach B.J. Pasquel said. “We were able to compete with a Saguaro at the varsity level some years. Chaparral always had our number in the region. But now we’re able to compete at the lower levels, too. In the old system that wasn’t happening.”
Arcadia reached the semifinals in 2005 and Apache Junction reached the quarterfinals in 2006 before moving back up to 4A-I this season.
Those schools have also enjoyed more success in other sports, including volleyball, basketball and softball. Arcadia won five state titles and produced four runners-up in the first two years of the 4A split.
Scottsdale Desert Mountain is the poster child for what the split in conference can do for a school’s psyche. The Wolves are back up in 5A-I this year, but what they accomplished during a two-year hiatus from the big boys was astonishing.
Desert Mountain won seven 5A-II titles (girls volleyball, girls and boys swimming, girls golf, basketball, and girls and boys tennis), one state runner-up (baseball) and three region crowns last season. The year before, they won five state titles.
“There’s no doubt Division II had a positive carry-over to this year,” Desert Mountain athletic director Steve Harris said of the Wolves, who are now back in Division I. “Playing in a mixed region, we played a lot more games against Division I schools and I think that ended up being a good thing.
“Once we got to the playoffs it was all Division II and we were well prepared. Going back this year hasn’t been a drastic change.”
While most schools would say the advent of Division II has been a rousing success, not all is rosy.
Critics have argued that the conference splits have diminished the importance of state titles when about half the field makes the playoffs.
In addition, while 4A-II football is enjoying depth with each of the five regions represented in the top 10 of the power points, 5A-II is still a caste system with a few haves and many have-nots.
After two years of mixing Division I and Division II teams in the same region, 5A followed 4A’s two-year-old model by creating D-II and D-I exclusive regions. Yet the Gila Valley and Metro II regions, which have no ranked teams, still appear significantly weaker than the Pima or Desert West regions.
And while the Pima Region sports three schools in the Tribune’s top five, only two teams in the five other regions, Peoria Centennial and Tucson Sunnyside, are legitimate state title contenders.
“I think 5A-II is a little softer now than 4A-II,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “There isn’t the balance there yet like 4A-II has. Some of that has to do with how scheduling is done: 5A uses a lottery system and in 4A the coaches get together and schedule.
“I think next year will be a defining year for 5A-II. The split is doing what it’s supposed to do, and that’s level the playing field. We’re getting more kids out for football. They know now they’re not going to play a Chandler or a Hamilton every week.”
Marcos de Niza isn’t complaining.
The Padres were the lone 5A-II school in a 5A-I region (Central) the past two years. They played six Division I teams each of the last two years and finished with 3-7 and 4-6 regular-season records.
With the exception of one win in 2005, the Padres’ wins in regular and postseason were all against 5A-II teams. Their 8-4 record vs. 5A-II teams the last two years legitimized their playoff spot each year. They’ve followed that up this year by going 6-0 with a schedule, like Skyline’s, that has toned down the 5A-I competition (one team this year).
“Competing with some very good 5A-I teams last year with a young team definitely prepared us well,” Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez said. “After the last two years playing mixed and even this year some, we try not to get caught up in who we’re playing.
“We are confident, but we don’t underestimate anybody.”