Friday’s 5A semifinal game marks the first ever meeting between Notre Dame Prep and Campo Verde on the gridiron.
The second-ranked Saints reached the final four after dominating performances in the two opening rounds, while the sixth-ranked Coyotes rallied from a double-digit deficit to beat region foe Higley last week.
While the two schools have never faced one another, there’s plenty of familiarity between them, and it starts with a well-known last name in the Arizona high school football community.
“I know their coaches and I follow them, but Campo Verde is my team and I want to get the win,” Campo Verde junior Cade Bemis said. “It would have been cool to play on that field. But this week it’s all about Campo Verde.”
Bemis grew up watching Notre Dame Prep games. His uncle, Scot Bemis, was the school’s first football coach. He led the Saints from 2002-11, winning championships in 2007 and 2008.
He took a leave of absence in September 2011 after an MRI revealed a tumor in his lungs. Bemis battled lung cancer for four months before he passed away in January 2012. He was 45 years old.
“He was more than just my uncle, he was my dad’s best friend,” Cade said. “I was really close with him. I came here on my uncle’s recommendation because we lived out here and that coach Ragsdale was a good coach.”
Campo Verde Coach Max Ragsdale has earned the respect of several coaches, fans and players during his tenure leading the Campo Verde program. He built it from the ground up, an opportunity given to him by current Notre Dame Athletic Director Mark Cisterna, who was the athletic director for Gilbert Public Schools at the time.
“He was given a chance at Apache Junction and really turned it around,” Cisterna said. “We brought him to Mesquite High and then when we opened up Campo Verde, he was the obvious choice. I’m just so happy he’s done well.”
The history between Cisterna and Ragsdale dates back more than 35 years, when Ragsdale was a third-grade water boy and bat boy for Cisterna’s football and baseball programs at Apache Junction High School.
Ragsdale played under Cisterna when he was old enough to attend Apache Junction. Ragsdale eventually went on to coach the Prospector’s while obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Arizona State. In 2009, when Campo Verde opened, Cisterna hired him.
“Everything I have learned was because of him,” Ragsdale said. “I was a horrible baseball player but the only reason I played was to hang out with him. He’s one of the reasons I am a coach today. He’s a great mentor and a great person.”
The semifinals are uncharted territory for Campo Verde, as the Coyotes would advance to their first ever championship game with a win on Friday night.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, is familiar with playing this late into the season. This year marks the Saints’ sixth trip to the semifinals. They made it to the title game the last two seasons but lost to Centennial in both instances.
Led by a slew of talent on both sides of the ball, the Saints hope to make a third consecutive trip to the championship.
“When you come so close the last couple of years, you stay motivated,” Notre Dame coach George Prelock said. “Our kids know what they’re playing for. We are just hoping to put it together this year and have another opportunity.”
Oklahoma State commit Cade Bennet has led a Saints offensive line that is one of the best units in the state. They’ve helped senior running back Dominick Mastro and senior quarterback Derek Elcholz account for nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage.
Locnikar has led the way for the Saints on defense with 145 total tackles, including 15.5 for loss and three sacks.
“We are really trying to piece together our game and play as a team,” Locnikar said. “This year feels a little different. We are coach Prelock’s class, we’ve basically been raised on Bemis Field. We just mesh so well.”
The Coyotes, meanwhile, are led by senior quarterback Zach Herrera and junior running back Caden Calloway. The two played vital roles in the Coyotes’ win over Higley last week. On defense, Campo Verde senior linebacker Jayden Fletcher has been key for his team’s ability to stop the run.
The ties Campo Verde and Notre Dame have off the field displays how special the relationships are that have been built around the state as the sport has grown. That remains especially true when dealing with family and long-time friends.
“This is what the playoffs are all about and it’s special to get the chance to play against a Bemis” Prelock said laughing. “It shows what a tight-knit community we have in Arizona.”
The game between second-ranked Notre Dame Prep and No. 6 Campo Verde will take place on Friday night at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.