Outlook: Tempe is ready for the next rung.
The Buffaloes were a feel-good story for most of 2012.
Previously a program which had struggled on the field the past few seasons, and with many kids dealing with far more difficult and important circumstances off the field, the Buffaloes were a blip away from playing postseason football.
Controversy swirled when coach Brian Walker pulled his players from the field during halftime of a loss against Saguaro, citing safety and injury concerns. Those winds eventually blew over, but losses to Seton Catholic and Maricopa to end the regular season kept Tempe out of postseason play.
The goal, of course, is to avoid any such repeat, and the Buffaloes have the returning talent to do so.
Seven starters return on offense, namely QB Emanuel Gant, WR Massiah Smith and Sebastian Watkins along with three starting lineman (Eduardo Vasquez, Pila Leha and Joseph Evanston).
Gant, Smith and Watkins are among the best EV players in Division III at their respective positions.
"Offensively we return some very explosive and dynamic athletes," Walker said.
He's not kidding, and they're not alone. Five others are back on defense, all-section linebacker Nojeem Adebule 121 tackles, and second-team all-section linebacker Ramon Castro (93 tackles) are flanked by Terry’on Wycoff (57 tackles, five sacks).
The interesting caveat with Tempe is the Buffaloes were placed in Division, Section VI, with the likes of Phoenix schools such as Thunderbird, Washington, Central, Moon Valley and Shadow Mountain; not in Section III with Saguaro, McClintock, Queen Creek or Williams Field.
That might make for a slightly easier schedule, but doing so also reduces the Buffaloes' "margin for error" so-to-speak. It means Tempe appears primed for a 7-3, 8-2 or 9-1-type season, but doing so might be needed to make the playoffs.
Then again, with all the dynamics the kids face and previous years' struggles competitively, why would this program care as long as it gets there?
Division III, Section VI
Coach: Brian Walker
Last year's record: 6-4; did not qualify for Division III postseason
Returning starters: 7 on offense/ 5 on defense
Top returners: QB Emanuel Gant (199 of 293 passing, 2,912 yards, 24 TD; 14 INT; 40 carries, 181 yards, 5 TD); WR Massiah Smith (68 rec., 950 yards, 9 TD); WR Sebastian Watkins (39 rec., 681 yards, 8 TD); OL Eduardo Vasquez; OL Pila Leha; OL Joseph Evanston; LB Nojeem Adebule (121 tackles); LB Ramon Castro (93 tackles, 6 PD); LB Terry'on Wycoff (57 tackles, five sacks)
Aug. 30 vs. Maricopa; Sept. 6 at Coconino; Sept. 13 vs. McClintock; Sept. 20 vs. Thunderbird; Sept. 27 at Shadow Mountain; Oct. 4 vs. Washington; Oct. 11 at Central; Oct. 18 at Phoenix Christian; Oct. 25 vs. Moon Valley; Nov. 1 at Alhambra
Aug. 30 vs. Maricopa: Could Week 1 be that important? Possibly in this case. Maricopa might not be quite the same team as last year after so many graduations, but this schedule given to Tempe means the Buffaloes need to beat any school which should otherwise win at least three, four or five games this season.
Sept. 13 vs. McClintock: Both nearby schools have taken it on the chin in recent years, especially McClintock, but it's good to see these schools still agreeing to play one another. Time was this could be a big-time matchup. If the Chargers can build themselves back up under Matt Lewis and Tempe's 2012 is only a building block for better things ahead, this matchup will be worth watching again.
Sept. 20 vs. Thunderbird: See above (Aug. 30 vs. Maricopa). The same could apply to the Washington matchup on Oct. 4
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.