Eight local teams made the football playoffs this season. Here's a look at each of their first round games. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. Friday unless otherwise noted.
#15 Valley Vista (8-2) at #2 Mesa Desert Ridge (9-1)
West Valley Preps will cover this game thanks to Varsity Xtra
Shadow Ridge and Valley Vista capped the most successful football regular seasons in their young histories by earning playoff berths.
Their reward? Two powerhouse first round foes with designs on state championships.
Valley Vista (8-2) is the No. 15 seed in Division I, the state’s large-school classification. The Monsoon drew a trip to No. 2 Mesa Desert Ridge (9-1) Friday with kickoff at 7 p.m. at 10045 E. Madero Ave.
It’s a similar, but less extreme scenario to 2011, when the Monsoon were 7-3, seeded No. 16 and met undefeated state kingpin Chandler Hamilton.
Unlike last season, when the team entered off shutout losses to Millennium and Westview, there’s some positive late performances heading into the postseason.
Valley Vista beat Millennium 26-21 Oct. 19 to earn its first eight-win season. Westview still is tough, as it proved in beating the Monsoon 42-7 Friday for the Section I title.
“Our passing game has gotten better, but in the same sentence we have not run the ball or fixed the turnover problem we have continued to have,” Valley Vista coach Josh Sekoch said. “We tried to do too much on defense last week, we need to go back to our fundamentals, do what we do.”
What they do best is speed. The Monsoon can match Jaguars in that respect, but must find a way to deal with a physical offensive line. Desert Ridge averages 333 rushing yards per game with athletic sophomore quarterback Tarek Morrison (1,248 rushing yards) at the controls.
“It is what Valley Vista used to run, the double wing. They run it with a quarterback who is very athletic and a big physical offensive line, the best one we have seen on video this year,” Sekoch said. “Defensively, they pressure with a good line and very skilled players in the secondary, Coach Hathcock and his staff you can see stress fundamentals and they are very sound in those aspects, tackling and blocking.”
Sekoch said the Monsoon have reason to be proud
“Overall we get to be one of the top 16 teams in the biggest classification and regardless winning eight is a great accomplishment for the kids who really put the effort into our offseason, worked hard and committed to Valley Vista,” he said.
#13 Tucson Sahuaro (7-3) at #4 Centennial (9-1)
West Valley Preps will cover this game
As has been the case since 2003, the Coyotes enter the first-round matchup at home as a heavy favorite.
But inside the Centennial program, the Cougars have their undivided attention. Sahuaro brings in a balanced offense led by senior tailback Alexander Howe (132 carries, 1,008 yards, 14 touchdowns), and junior quarterback Laramie Brown (1,601 yards, 23 touchdowns, nine interceptions).
“Sahuaro does many things well. I like their offensive and defensive lines,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “They have a strong running game and they pass the ball better than most do.”
Meanwhile, the Coyotes enter the playoffs fresh and healthy. All year, Centennial has shuttled in substitutes on both sides of the ball.
Tailback Jalen Ortiz, linebacker Wes Westbrook, defensive end Marcus Farria and quarterback Tre Grant have not racked up big statistical numbers or played big minutes. That, likely, ends now.
“No one player has had to carry the load for us, thus, we have not had players with huge stats, but we do have fresh players and relatively injury-free for the playoffs,” Taylor said. “This time of year we now are much more selective in our substitution.”
Centennial lost its one matchup against another Division II state title contender, falling to Tucson Ironwood Ridge 28-24 Sept. 28. The Nighthawks battered Grant with seven sacks and forced five turnovers.
While tough to take at the time for the consensus Division I favorite, the team appears to have taken the experience to heart.
“The Ironwood Ridge loss, in the long run, was good for us,” Taylor said. “The last four weeks we’ve been working to eliminate penalties, turnovers and missed assignments on offense. On defense, we’ve been working on taking the ball away and are looking for ways to make special teams look truly special.”
#13 Phoenix Paradise Valley (7-3) at #4 Liberty (9-1)
West Valley Preps will cover this game
Liberty would appear to have the advantage, based on a 65-31 win at Paradise Valley Sept. 6.
But that game was tied at 24 at halftime, before the Lions buried the Trojans with big plays on defense and special teams. Any team led by Bosie State-bound quarterback Ryan Finley (3,165 passing yards, 33 touchdowns, eight interceptions) is a threat to pull an upset.
“Last game our defense in the second half did a good job getting pressure on Finley,” Filleman said. “We caused a couple of turnovers which gave us momentum.”
While Finley and top targets Joey Gatewood (78 catches, 871 yards) and Jordan Brown (50 catches, 791 yards) provide Paradise Valley with an offense the same caliber as Liberty’s, the Lions can repeat their regular season success if it again takes advantage of its defense and depth.
Several Trojans play extensively on both sides of the ball. Until this season, that was the case at Liberty.
Now the Lions boast 22 different starters and the effect has been mostly on a defense that appeared stronger in the second half of victories over Paradise Valley, Sunrise Mountain and Cactus.
“We have definitely seen the benefits of running a two platoon system,” Filleman said. “We always seem to get stronger as the game goes on. It has helped us keeping most of our players healthy.”
And for the first time in three years, Liberty heads into the playoffs with momentum. After ending the previous two regular seasons with losses, the Lions start their title bid this year coming off what may be the young program’s biggest win.
Liberty beat Cactus 47-26 to win the Section II title last week. It also helped erase the bad taste from a 27-0 loss to top seed Goodyear Desert Edge Oct. 12.
“The win over Cactus was huge, our kids wanted that win to become section champs. We did not get that last year that has been a goal of ours ever since,” Filleman said. “Our kids also have a bigger goal to meet as well. Playing well the last couple weeks has really helped us get back in tune after the Desert Edge loss. Our kids are focused and practicing extremely well so we can make the best run at it we possibly can.”
#9 Scottsdale Saguaro (7-3) at #8 Cactus (7-3)
West Valley Preps will cover this game
The most-criticized seeding result of the new AIA/MaxPreps algorithm is this first-round matchup, where Saguaro travels to face a team it beat 67-14 Sept. 21.
Both squads faced five Arizona playoff teams. Perhaps, Cactus’ Sept. 1 loss against a Bakersfield, Calif. team with a high national ranking was the difference?
No matter. To proceed deep in the playoffs, the Cobras can’t rely on the home crowd — they must play far better against a team that has tormented them in recent years.
There is a precedent to give Cactus hope. Last year, Saguaro slammed them 62-24 in the regular season, but had to gut out a hard-fought 31-23 Division III state title victory over the Cobras.
“We’re more experienced with some new people in starting jobs,” Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said. “They don’t look like they’ve made many changes.”
But this year’s narrative diverges from the story of 2011. Cactus won eight straight games before facing Saguaro in the title game.
This year, the Cobras enter the playoffs needing to regroup from their loss to Liberty. That game cost Cactus a more favorable first-round matchup.
In the regular-season game, Saguaro pushed the pedal down in getting a 47-7 halftime lead. The Sabercats are adept at zone read plays and rotate rushing duties between seniors Gena Adams and Kash Robinson and junior quarterback Luke Rubenzer. The trio combined for 291 yards on 31 carries in the first game.
Rubenzer and standout sophomore wide receiver Christian Kirk punish teams that load up on the run.
So in this case, to borrow an old phrase, the best defense is a good offense. Cactus needs to control the ball and avoid allowing short fields — like they did for most of the 2011 title game.
“Yes, we need to move the chains and not turn the ball over,” Fetkenhier said. “They are well coached and make few mistakes.”
#11 Sunrise Mountain (8-2) at #6 Sahuarita (10-0)
One team will celebrate its first playoff success in a long time as the Mustangs head south of Tucson to take on the division’s unknown quantity.
Sahuarita, also nicknamed the Mustangs, averaged 50 points a game in a rout-filled undefeated season that’s already the best in school history.
However, Sahuarita is seeded behind two teams with a loss thanks to a tissue-soft schedule. These Mustangs were challenged by two fringe playoff teams — No. 14 Nogales and Division IV No. 12 Empire. Those were their only opponents with a winning record.
Because of this, some observers consider Sunrise Mountain the favorite. Coach James Carter said he’s happy to avoid the defending state champion in the first round, after facing that in each of his first two seasons as coach.
But he’s quick to discount anyone who thinks this will be an easy trip.
“Their offensive and defensive lines are very impressive. They are very disciplined and don’t make mistakes,” Carter said. “We have had to play the No. 1 team the last two years. We are excited just to play someone different.”
Sahuarita has an all-around weapon to match Sunrise junior Elijah Castro. Senior Aric Howard averages 30 yards per reception, nearly nine yards per carry and is one of the state’s more dangerous return men. He also is the team’s top safety.
Senior tailback Chris Snodgrass (156 carries, 1,364 yards, 23 touchdowns) provides a steady threat to go with the explosive Howard.
Coach David Rodriguez has placed his stamp on the Mustangs, sporting a 17-3 record in two years on the job. Sahuarita was 3-17 the previous two years.
“I’m impressed with Sahuarita’s team and coaches.” Carter said. “They have done a great job down there. I have a lot of respect for their program.”
Carter knows the expectations for his team are raised this year since their most talented players are upperclassmen now.
If Sunrise Mountain wants to earn its first playoff win since 2005, the team has fresh examples of what and what not to do against a good team.
On Oct. 12, the resilient Mustangs fought back from two double-digit deficits to beat Paradise Valley 57-47.
A week later, Sunrise Mountain gained nearly 500 yards against Cactus but lost 49-28 thanks largely to four turnovers.
“The Cactus game was a eye opener. We made too many mistakes and yes, turnovers killed us,” Carter said. “Cactus is a great team and they have great coaches. You can’t have turnovers against a good team.”
#16 Sedona Red Rock (6-4) at #1 Northwest Christian (9-1)
Despite the 21-20 Week 10 loss to Tempe Prep, the Crusaders remained in the top spot.
Tempe Prep had a pair of two-touchdowns leads erased but a failed extra point thwarted Northwest Christian's comeback. As far as coach Dave Inness is concerned, October losses are far better than November ones you can learn from the October defeats.
"We’ve had a great week of practice and we get two starters back this week and another two next week which will really help us," he said. "We just have to start fast like we normally do but the effort in the fourth quarter of the Tempe Prep game was the best I’ve seen in the three years I’ve been here."
Those starters are receiver/linebacker James Mossbrucker, cornerback Kaleb Worrell, cornerback Josh James and linebacker Nick Brown.
Two will be back for a first round rematch with Red Rock, a 62-0 victim to the Crusaders in August. Since then the Scorpions have gotten healthy themselves and rattled off six wins in eight games.
"Their starting quarterback is playing and playing really well for them as their leading rusher and passer. Their top lineman is back. Both didn’t play against us earlier in the season," Inness said.