Best player: Josh Eckley, QB, Marcos de Niza
Eckley had a fantastic junior season but flew under the radar during the offseason as other local quarterbacks committed to Division I colleges. He’s back on the map in a big way as the Padres are 4-1 and ranked No. 4 in Division II. The team defense has had its problems, but Eckley has been a machine at quarterback. He has completed 63-of-108 passes for 1,106 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions while adding 64 carries for 370 yards and five more scores. Eckley is currently battling an ankle injury, but at full strength, he might be the toughest player to stop in the East Valley...
Honorable mention: Emanuel Gant, QB, Tempe; Dalton Sneed, QB, Horizon; Taren Morrison, RB, Desert Ridge; Bryce Perkins, QB, Chandler; Clark Brown, WR, Mountain View; Luke Quinn, RB/LB, Horizon; Chip White, DB, Highland.
Best team: Mountain Pointe
The Pride were far and away the most impressive team in the first half of the season. They began it with a win over nationally ranked Las Vegas Bishop Gorman, added a thumping of Chandler and, on Friday, outclassed Hamilton from start to finish to improve to 6-0. Mountain Pointe has a fantastic defense and a pair of offensive stars in running back Paul Lucas and wide receiver Jalen Brown. The Pride should run the table and head into the Division I state tournament as the top seed and title favorite.
Honorable mention: Desert Ridge, Queen Creek.
Biggest disappointment: Corona del Sol
A quick look at the other sports at the school — most notably, the two-time defending champion boys basketball team — proves the Aztecs should be competitive based on their demographics. However, it’s been another down year, culminating in the firing of coach Tom Joseph prior to Friday’s loss to Mesquite. Corona del Sol is 0-5 on the year and is struggling to get athletes from the school to join the football program. The potential is there, but right now, the team is struggling to get victories and the season already feels like a lost cause.
Breakout star: Luke Quinn, RB/DB, Horizon
Even after a quick start, Quinn may still be largely an unknown, but that will change if he continues to put up numbers like this. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior has carried the ball 50 times for 634 yards and 11 touchdowns — a 12.68 yards-per-carry average — and added 16 catches for 344 yards and four scores. Horizon is off to a 4-1 start and the offense is averaging 53.4 points per game. The Huskies might not be considered a state title contender quite yet, but they have the type of explosiveness which scares other teams, and it’s Quinn who is leading the charge.
Honorable mention: Paul Lucas, RB, Mountain Pointe; Kam’ron Johnson, RB/DB, Tempe; Brian Lewerke, QB, Pinnacle; Bryce Perkins, QB, Chandler; Weston Barlow, Queen Creek.
Best protegé: Weston Barlow
The 2013 season was supposed to be another dominant one for Queen Creek running back Matt Guida, who was the Tribune’s Player of the Year in 2012 after rushing for 2,829 yards and 31 touchdowns as a junior. However, he’s only played a game and a half due to a leg injury, which has forced Barlow to step up and get the majority of the carries. In the three games without Guida, the junior replacement has been a force, carrying the ball 78 times for 833 yards and 10 touchdowns. Once Guida returns to form, he and Barlow may be the best 1-2 punch in the East Valley.
Most surprising team: Skyline
The Coyotes have been one of the least successful programs in the East Valley for the past several years but are off to a great start. The schedule has been light, and Skyline has taken advantage with an undefeated mark through five games. Wide receiver Logan Ruppert filled in very well at running back in the earlygoing with 56 carries for 545 yards, and the team has a cumulative yards-per-carry average of 8.10. The defense has been stout, allowing just 8.4 points per game. The Coyotes end the year with games against Mountain View, Desert Ridge, Desert Mountain, Mesa and Red Mountain, so one win might be the maximum in the second half, but the team should have a shot at the playoffs if it can finish with a 6-4 record.
Honorable mention: Campo Verde, Westwood, Horizon
Best game: Chaparral 35, Desert Mountain 28
This showdown was televised on ESPNU and a national audience had the chance to watch the year’s most stirring comeback to date. Desert Mountain jumped all over Chaparral early, taking a 28-0 lead on a 32-yard pass from quarterback Kyle Allen to wide receiver Sam Sabato midway through the second quarter. The Firebirds would not fold, storming back with 35 straight points to steal the win. The Wolves were rolling in the game until injuries to wide receiver Mark Andrews and a host of others slowed them down. Chaparral took full advantage and Kurt Shughart sealed the deal by intercepting Desert Mountain star quarterback Kyle Allen with under two minutes remaining.
Honorable mention: Marcos de Niza 56, Horizon 53; Hamilton 24, Pinnacle 20; Poston Butte 32, Marana 29 (OT); Highland 27, Campo Verde 24; Higley 27, Cactus Shadows; Mesquite 17, Marana Mountain View 14.
Biggest upset: Marcos de Niza 54, Chaparral 45
The Firebirds entered this game as the No. 1 team in Division II and fresh off a rout of Saguaro. Marcos de Niza, meanwhile, struggled to put away Horizon in its opener and still had many question marks after graduation and transfers depleted the team’s returning talent. However, quarterback Josh Eckley put the Padres on his back and led them to an entertaining 54-45 win. The outcome was in doubt until the end, but the Marcos de Niza offense was relentless. Eckley finished the contest 17-of-25 for 340 yards passing with six touchdowns and added 19 carries for 106 yards and another score. The game showed that Marcos de Niza is still potent enough to make a deep postseason run.
Honorable mention: Mountain Pointe 28, Bishop Gorman 21; Brophy 13, Desert Mountain 6; Boulder Creek 17, Desert Vista 3; Canyon State 36, San Tan Foothills 32.
Best coach: Norris Vaughan
It’s easy to forget just how bad of shape the Mountain Pointe football program was in before Norris Vaughan arrived. The Pride was coming off a 2-8 season in 2008 despite being located in an area rife with talent. Vaughan quickly built the program into a power, and this year’s team is the best yet. Mountain Pointe is super-talented, but it’s also fundamentally sound, as penalties and turnovers are kept to a minimum. Vaughan’s strategies may not be as flashy as some others, but he gets the job done and has the team positioned to make a run at the state championship.
Honorable mention: Kris Heavner, Horizon; Angelo Paffummi, Skyline; Max Ragsdale, Campo Verde; Spencer Stowers, Westwood
Best player you’d never heard of: Chase Lucas, RB, Chandler
The talented sophomore was not expected to make this big of an impact early on, but injuries forced coach Shaun Aguano’s hand and Lucas has excelled once given the opportunity. He burst onto the scene in a season-opening win over Peoria Centennial and has totaled 49 carries for 301 yards and five touchdowns as well as 17 receptions for a team-best 242 yards and three touchdowns. The Wolves have talented skill guys across the board, but it’s mighty impressive that this young sophomore may be the most dangerous of them all.
Honorable mention: Finton Connolly, OL/DL, Campo Verde; Turrell Pietz-Noble, RB, Mesa; Doc O’Connor, WR, Basha; Tyler Bloom, QB, Higley; Brandon Hatfield, WR, Poston Butte.