This was expected. That’s what makes it unique.
Preseason prognostications across the board tabbed Chandler Hamilton (5A-I), Peoria Centennial (5A-II) and Scottsdale Saguaro (4A-I) as the favorites in their respective conferences.
It was easy to make those predictions in August.
Each team was the defending champion in its class. Each had many key pieces returning.
Still, it would have just as easy for one of those teams to slip up and alter the landscape.
It never happened.
While the teams below them played a game of musical chairs in the rankings, the favorites combined for a 29-1 regular-season record — Centennial had the lone loss (to Hamilton) — and each heads into the state tournament as a prohibitive favorite.
Joining the party is 4A-II’s Cottonwood Mingus, which is 10-0 with nine of those wins coming by 18 points or more.
“To go 10-0, man, people don’t understand how hard it is,” said Scottsdale Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle, who was the defensive coordinator at Phoenix Moon Valley when it went 14-0 and won the 4A state title in 2004. “Just because you’ve got all the talent doesn’t necessarily equate to winning automatically.”
Not on this stage.
“Our profession is based off what 16- and 17-year-olds are doing,” Tempe McClintock coach Mike Gibbons said. “You’d be better off gambling on the stock market.”
While the favorites in each playoff race are clear, the rest of the pool is murky. Here’s a look at the four conferences that kick off their postseason races tonight.
Pack hopefuls: Red Mountain, Corona del Sol, Brophy, Mountain View
Dark horse: Desert Vista
By virtue of a win over Gilbert Highland in the regular-season finale, Gilbert Mesquite squeaked into the 5A-I state tournament.
Its reward is a first-round matchup with Hamilton.
First-year coach Mike Reardon knows the reality. His Wildcats lost to the Huskies 44-8 on Oct. 26.
“I’m not going to go in there and tell (my players) they’re going to lose,” Reardon said. “At the same time, I’m not going to blow smoke.
“If you line it up, player by player, they’re better than us, but a lot of teams are better than us. It’s how you play as a team.”
Look no further than the rest of 5A-I for evidence.
On Sept. 7, then-No. 2 Chandler was walloped by Mesa Dobson 39-0. On Sept. 28, a 1-3 Mesquite squad beat No. 4 Chandler Basha 18-15.
Just last week, unranked Mesa clobbered No. 2 Mesa Red Mountain 24-0, one week after Red Mountain finally knocked off rival Mesa Mountain View.
A glance at this week’s first-round matchups offers the possibility of much of the same.
Generally, the best first-round matchups come from the teams seeded closest together, and the games between No. 8 Glendale Mountain Ridge and No. 9 Mesa Westwood, along with No. 7 Dobson against No. 10 Basha, do look like tossups.
But No. 11 Phoenix Desert Vista travels to No. 6 Chandler with one of the most talented teams in the state, and No. 12 Mesa takes a three-game winning streak to Tempe Corona del Sol, which has won eight in a row.
“Outside of the top two seeds (Hamilton and Red Mountain), there’s not a (result) that would surprise me,” Dobson coach Tom DeMassa said. “There’s no game that’s a sure lock. The whole East Valley is just a bunch of good teams. Hamilton’s obviously a step above, but all this parity is a great thing.”
Pace setter: Centennial
Pack hopefuls: Westview, Marcos de Niza, Sunnyside, Pinnacle
Dark horse: Desert Ridge
Hamilton went through the gauntlet of 5A-I contenders, but the team that played it toughest was Centennial, whose wideout, Jarrell Barbour, is one of the state’s most electrifying players.
Avondale Westview is the only 5A-II team in the last two years to even come within single digits of the Coyotes.
Centennial’s first-round opponent is Avondale La Joya, a team it beat 60-12 in the regular season. Ragle’s now the head man at Chaparral — the team that came closest to knocking off Saguaro in the regular season — but he knows what it’s like to feel helpless.
“When we started at Moon Valley, we had to play Saguaro with (eventual Division I players Loren) Howard and (Kyle) Caldwell,” Ragle said. “We knew we didn’t have a chance to win that game, but you don’t let the players believe that. You believe you’re going to go out there and win.
That’s why Stanford beats USC. Especially at this level, you never know.”
If No. 8 Mesa Desert Ridge beats Phoenix Deer Valley in the first round, it’ll get a second crack at the Coyotes, who shut out the Jaguars, 34-0, in the season opener.
Since then Desert Ridge has gone 6-3, scoring at least 21 points in every contest.
Tucson Sunnyside is also on the top half of the bracket and would run into Centennial in the semifinals. Those two teams faced off in last year’s championship game.
A new conference has treated Phoenix Pinnacle well, as its first foray into 5A-II has produced a No. 2 seed in the tournament. If the Pioneers take care of business in their first two rounds, a showdown with either No. 6 Westview or No. 3 Tempe Marcos de Niza looms. Region foe Marcos beat Pinnacle, 43-29, on Oct. 5.
Pack hopefuls: Higley, Buckeye, Notre Dame Prep, Santa Rita
Dark horse: Queen Creek
Mingus is the lone favorite that didn’t come in with sky-high expectations. However, an impressive regular-season résumé has altered outsiders’ perception.
Mingus didn’t allow more than 23 points in a game, ran the table in region play and handily defeated nonconference tournament teams Queen Creek and Phoenix Washington.
Gilbert Higley was the preseason No. 1 after making last year’s title game, but is seeded seventh after losing two games by a combined three points. Higley will likely have to beat Buckeye and Scottsdale Notre Dame or Queen Creek to reach the title game.
Notre Dame (9-1) likely has the most talented skill players in 4A-II, and the best player in quarterback Sean Renfree.
Queen Creek went just 6-4 overall against a brutal schedule, but undefeated in the East Sky Region. The Bulldogs should be battle-tested enough to play any team tough.
Pack hopefuls: Cactus, Sabino, Chaparral, Canyon del Oro
Dark horse: Peoria
Mike Gibbons knew the ramifications of Saturday’s coin flip. It determined if his team played top-seeded Saguaro in the first round or No. 2 Glendale Cactus. He polled his team and got a unanimous reply: Go with tails. That choice was further validated when Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep coach Scot Bemis called and reminded Gibbons that the Suns chose heads in the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sweepstakes and lost.
Turns out Avondale Agua Fria ultimately made the call, but the importance was not lost. The Owls ended up guessing wrong and the Chargers were awarded the 15th seed in the tournament.
“Saguaro is 4A-I’s Hamilton,” Gibbons said. “It’s yet to be determined if anyone can stop them.”
At this point, Saguaro’s biggest challenge might be in a semifinal showdown with Scottsdale Chaparral. The Firebirds will likely have to beat Goodyear Millennium in the quarterfinals.
The bitter rivals played during the year, and Saguaro jumped out to a 21-0 lead before holding on for a 31-28 win at Chaparral. The Firebirds were the only team to play a competitive game with the Sabercats this season.
While Saguaro or Chaparral will almost assuredly escape the upper bracket, the lower one has many more questions. Cactus is seeded second, but it was stomped by the Sabercats last week. No. 3 Tucson Sabino is undefeated against a soft schedule and will play either Tucson Canyon del Oro or Vail Cienega in the second round — two teams more than capable of pulling an upset.
Peoria is also lurking, a team with losses to
Millennium and Cactus but with enough talent to make a run.