10. Highland Hawks
The Hawks took a step forward in 2012 with a 6-4 regular season and a berth in the Division I state tournament. They have 14 starters returning, including eight from a stout defense. It’s been a while since Highland has been thought of as a legitimate player, but a special senior class is hoping to prove this team belongs in the top-10 rankings.
Grant Thompson and Grant Gale combined to record 18 sacks last year and will be a handful for opposing offensive linemen. The defense will be solid, but the team’s fate could rest on the performances of quarterback Blake Young (1,100 passing yards, 295 rushing yards, 16 TD) and running back Ryan McCord (293 rush yards, 3 TD, team-best 7.92 yards-per-carry), who was injured last season but is expected to have a big year.
9. Mountain View Toros
The Toros won seven games last year, including impressive ones over Pinnacle and Red Mountain. The offense has several key pieces returning, led by wide receiver Clark Brown (622 rec. yards, 7 TD, 18.7 yards per punt return) and quarterback John Clark. Mountain View slowly detoriorated from a perennial power to a mediocre program the past several years, but there is optimism once again behind new coach Chad DeGrenier.
The Toros have a varsity roster of 75 players, and if the team can find some impact performers on defense beside leading returner Connor Ipsen (67 tackles, 2 INT), another playoff showing — and maybe a little run — should be on the horizon.
8. Pinnacle Pioneers
A perennial playoff team for years under Dana Zupke, the Pioneers appear to be much the same. What’s shaping up to be a tougher schedule than the past couple seasons should help that cause (win or lose) after last year’s sour ending to Week 10 (blowout loss to Brophy) and the playoffs (blowout loss to Avondale Westview) after a big win against Desert Mountain in Week 9.
QB Brian Lewerke saw short stints of action last year and takes the reigns this year, and the Pioneers are understandably excited about his potential since the 6-foot-3, 185-pounder already has a Division I college offer from Arizona State. It’ll sure help having RB Josh Hoekstra behind him (1,538 yards, 16 TD) along with nearly the entire WR crew from last year led by Daniel Galindo and Cules Rose. Cole Neubauer, Trevor Colceri and Rose will lead a solid defense.
7. Desert Mountain Wolves
So much has been chronicled about QB Kyle Allen (3,119 yards passing, 36 TD, 7 INT) and WR Mark Andrews (1,494 yards, 21 TD), and rightfully so, as they are arguably the best offensive duo in the country. The Wolves resurrected themselves last season to reach the Div. I quarterfinals, and Allen and Andrews will again cause opponents nightmares. But as a playoff loss to Mountain Pointe revealed, the Wolves’ running game and defense couldn’t keep the team on track. The Wolves return a combined 1,285 yards and 20 TD in the backfield in Adam Cooper and Daniel Fedorka, but can this year’s offensive line keep Allen clean and pound opponents in what’s going to be a challenging schedule?
Fedorka and Greg Frasco (133 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks) will lead the defense, and Chaparral-transfer Gary McKay could be a huge boost on both sides of the ball for the Wolves.
6. Basha Bears
The Bears got a rough draw in last year’s playoffs in losing the best first-round game of the bunch to Desert Vista, but they are still a perennial top-10 team these days. The biggest reasons for optimism begin with returning QB Zach Werlinger (2,689 yards passing, 30 TD, 12 INT) and RB Rajhan Meriwether (1,151 yards, 10 TD), who will lead the always-explosive offense. The questions lie most everywhere else, as a new WR corps will have to help the backfield. So, too, must the defense, and while the linebackers appear to be the strength, the Bears can’t afford to allow what it did defensively in 2012, when opponents scored 155 points in the Bears’ four losses.
5. Westview Knights
The Knights were beaten soundly by Red Mountain in last year’s season opener, but played well the rest of the way, hanging tough with Brophy in the regular season and losing by just a touchdown to Desert Ridge in the state quarterfinals.
Quarterback Kordell Provchy (1,422 passing yards, 458 rushing yards, 24 TD) returns, but Westview must find a replacement for standout running back Seivion Morris. The defense welcomes back linebacker Richie Miranda (105 tackles, 8 TFL) and seven other contributors from a year ago. The East Valley typically dominates Division I, but this is the one West Valley program which shouldn’t be taken lightly.
4. Chandler Wolves
Like most years, the Wolves aren’t short on talent. The question is: How will that translate to wins and losses? Bryce Perkins has assumed the quarterback role after playing wide receiver as a sophomore on varsity. He has UCLA-commit Dionte Sykes (108 rec. yards, 5 TD) and Mitch McCulley (721 rec. yards, 5 TD) as receivers while Zach Culbreath and Chase Lucas should split carries.
Chandler’s defense has been a weakness in the past, but it boasts four players with Division I offers this year. Defensive back J.R. Hunt is verbally committed to Arizona, while defensive lineman Cruz Flores, defensive lineman Jordan Hoyt and defensive back Wesley Sutton have all been offered by Northern Arizona.
3. Desert Ridge Jaguars
The Jaguars made the state semifinals for a third straight time a season ago and were tied with Hamilton in the second half before succumbing. Quarterback Tarek Morrison (1,404 yards rushing, 861 yards passing, 27 TD) is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered against Avondale Westview in the quarterfinals, and it may take him some time to get up to speed. Running backs Taren Morrison and Danny Siamau should carry the load offensively, and Desert Ridge may be leaning on its defense early.
The Jaguars return leading tackler Amoni Itaaehau, defensive back Nathaniel Rodriguez and defensive lineman Vita Taifu to a unit which has the potential to be one of the state’s best. Desert Ridge is looking well-rounded and ready to contend once again.
2. Mountain Pointe Pride
The Pride knocked off Hamilton in the regular season and made the Division I state championship game last year, but ultimately fell short against the Huskies. Many of the key pieces are back, including reigning Gatorade Player of the Year Jalen Brown (1,235 receiving yards, 18 TD at WR; 26 tackles, 5 INT at DB), quarterback Antonio Hinojosa, lineman Natrell Curtis and linebacker Wesley Payne. Additonally, Marcos de Niza standout cornerback Dominique Fenstermacher has transferred in and wide receiver Emmanuel Butler seems ready to play a bigger role.
The Pride loses its running back duo of Garrette Craig and Thomas Warren, but always seems to have top-flight running backs waiting in the wings. Mountain Pointe is talented, deep and balanced. It wouldn’t surprise anybody to watch it make another deep playoff run.
1. Hamilton Huskies
The defending champions were in the limelight this summer when Coolidge accused Hamilton of recruiting standout running back/defensive back J.T. Gray (Gray briefly went to Basha before he transferred back to his native Mississippi). Now the Huskies are in the spotlight for more positive reasons, armed with eight returning starters on defense in what could be one of the best groups in Arizona during the past decade (at least). The core group is led by Qualen Cunningham, Caleb Peart, Levi and Santana Sterling, Jalen Jenkins and Juwan Jones.
The offense should be improved as well, with Sammy Sasso the starting QB and standout lineman Casey Tucker leading a solid offensive line for Elijah Williams and co. The schedule will be formidable (Eastlake, Calif., Brophy, Mountain Pointe, Chandler, Basha, Pinnacle and Highland), but so, too, is the gap between the Huskies and the rest.