An early look at what to watch in Division III this season:
Who’s coming back?: The new Division III mixes previous 4A-I powers (Saguaro, Queen Creek) along with 4A-II stalwarts Phoenix Thunderbird, Glendale Cactus and Williams Field, but there’s also a deep group of schools chomping at the bit: Higley, Peoria Liberty, Arcadia and Paradise Valley. This could be the most even division of them all, which would make it fun and interesting.
Who’s this year’s Thunderbird?: Chiefs weren’t on anyone’s radar to begin the 2010 season, or even at midseason with losses to Liberty and Cactus. But they became darlings after blowing out Liberty in the first round of the playoffs, then beating Higley, Goodyear Desert Edge and Williams Field by a combined 11 points en route to the school’s first championship. Repeating is difficult, even with T-Birds’ ample group of returners. Will anyone be the 2011 version of the Chiefs?
Players to Watch
D.J. Foster, Saguaro, Sr., QB/DB: Will carry the load offensively with Teddy Ruben’s graduation, but the dynamic athlete who had 2,200 total yards and 26 TD in 2010 can do it all, and do it really well.
Billy Gregorie, Queen Creek, Sr., DL: A lot has changed around this defensive lineman in 2010, but the Co-Desert Sky Region Player of the Year in 2010 returned stronger, and the Bulldogs will need him to wreak havoc up front, something he did often in the Q.C. revival of 2010 (111 total tackles, six sacks).
Alex Howard, Williams Field, Sr., RB: Hampered by a preseason ankle injury, Howard’s return to health will be vital as the Black Hawks attempt to get back to the championship game with new personnel, and the 1,400-yard rusher from 2010 will be counted on to carry the load early.
Eric Kump, Higley, Sr., QB (pictured): Threw for 828 yards and 13 touchdowns while Kelvin Fisher ran wild last year. Kump won a couple MVP awards at passing camps, and new coach Eddy Zubey already put Kump as the best QB he’s ever worked with.
Cam Larson, Saguaro, Sr., RB/LB: Massive departures to graduation don’t faze the Sabercats, who welcome this all-purpose runner (1,100 total yards) and leading tackler (82 total tackles) who transferred from Cactus Shadows.
Sept. 2 Thunderbird at Saguaro: Saguaro is the defending 4A-I champion, Thunderbird the defending 4A-II champion, and both are expected to be in contention for the newly formed Division III title. The Sabercats had trouble defensively last season, and will have their hands full against running backs Kani Benoit and Connor Hustead.
Sept. 23 Saguaro at Cactus: Saguaro and Cactus have always been among the upper-echelon 4A teams, and this year looks no different in Division III. The Cobras were one of two teams to knock off the Sabercats last season, and the result of this game will help solve the Div. III pecking order.
Sept. 30 Williams Field at Higley: The Black Hawks won the first two matchups between these neighbors (and three miles apart is as close as it gets), so it’s time for Higley to fire back. Regardless of sport, these two schools will have a rivalry for years to come, and staying close to even competitively only makes it better.
Oct. 6 Arcadia at Paradise Valley: Is this year’s defense better as P.V. coach Donnie Yantis predicts? That answer could be a bit skewed given the competition of the Trojans’ first month, but by the final month, the Titans shouldn’t put up 42 points as they did in 2010. This is a sneaky-good matchup of a solid program (Arcadia) and an up-and-comer (P.V.).
Oct. 28 Queen Creek at Williams Field: Williams Field has established itself as one of the best lower-division programs in the south East Valley in just a few short years. Queen Creek could do so with another solid season this year. This could be the start of a big-time rivalry.