Prep football observers predicted an easy ride to the Division II title game for Centennial football. Midway though, though, the Coyotes hit a pothole.
Since giving up six turnovers and seven sacks in its 28-24 loss to Tucson Ironwood Ridge Sept. 28, Centennial has raised its game several levels, averaging 51 points per game while allowing only seven per contest.
No. 3 Ironwood Ridge (12-1) has proved it’s far more than a bump in the road. The Nighthawks punished No. 2 Tempe Marcos de Niza for the second time this year in the semifinals to reach the school’s first state final. Saturday, they’ll look to give No. 4 Centennial (12-1) a double dose in the Division II title game, which kicks off at 7:07 p.m. at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe.
“On their defense, there’s no 290-pounders, no kid that jumps out at you. But they’re all good athletes, they all run and they all hit,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “We did have some problems with what they did. It was no accident. They earned those turnovers and earned the win.”
The Coyotes prepare for the rematch secure in the knowledge they can beat one of Arizona’s top 10 teams. In their semifinal Centennial handled the other Tucson powerhouse, Salpointe Catholic, which earned the No. 1 seed in a season ending victory over Ironwood Ridge.
While not as impressive on the scoreboard as their earlier playoff blowouts, Centennial’s 28-14 victory over Salpointe at Amphitheater High School in Tucson stands as the team’s most complete performance.
Two long drives spotted the visitors a 14-0 lead. Then senior Jalen Oritz broke the game open with an 87-yard touchdown dash. Salpointe scored before halftime, but did not pick up its second touchdown until little more than two minutes remained.
Ortiz rushed for 219 yards on 14 carries, and the Coyote defense made one of the state’s best offenses one-dimensional. The Lancers entered the game averaging 259 yards on the ground and rolled up 301 against Ironwood Ridge, but only gained 27 in the semifinal.
“Salpointe was an outstanding team. If we hadn’t made improvements since the sixth game, I doubt we’d be playing this week,” Taylor said. “I can’t say enough about our defense. Salpointe’s offensive line is bigger than ours. Our guys did a great job holding the gap and running to the ball.”
Ironwood Ridge presents a different host of challenges. No player on the roster weighs more than 240 pounds. There’s not a passing combination the caliber of Salpointe juniors Andy Cota and Cameron Denson.
However, the Nighthawks ‘do what they do’ perhaps better than any team in the state. They run the ball out of a zone read look with the lethal combination of an elite athletic quarterback — senior Tyler Williams (1,089 rushing yards, 15 touchdowns) — and a fireplug of a tailback — senior Anthony Braunreiter (1,685 yards, 27 touchdowns).
In their first meeting, the Nighthawks rushed for 187 yards. That’s 77 more yards than any other team gained on the ground against Centennial.
Defensively, Ironwood Ridge is loaded with almost interchangable linemen and linebackers in the 200- to 230-pound range. They blitz frequently, yet have the speed and consistent tackling to limit the big play.
And there’s no reason for the Coyotes to expect anything different.
“I doubt we will change much. If you change too much, you start confusing your own kids,” Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson said. “We have had success doing what we’ve been doing, and I don’t think we will do much differently this game.”
In its semifinal, the Nighthawks rushed for 462 yards and all five of its touchdowns. Braunreiter rolled for 285 and four scores while Williams slipped through the defense for 157 yards.
As with Centennial, the final score was closer than the game played out. Ironwood Ridge took a 28-7 lead early in the fourth quarter, and were up 35-14 until allowing a late touchdown.
So Coyotes on both sides of the line are preparing for a night of trench warfare. Though they lack Salpointe’s size, the Nighthawks’ line can be more difficult to deal with, thanks to its understanding of leverage and technique.
“They have a great offensive line. They’re strong, they have really good speed and great technique,” senior defensive tackle Eliseo Ramos said. “We’ve been practicing our technique all week.”
Centennial’s offense starts with Ortiz. But it hardly ends there.
Senior quarterback Tre Grant can keep on the read option and throw the ball downfield. Ortiz is complemented by a pair of powerful runners. And the receiving corps has size (shawn Poindexter) elusiveness (Xavier Villanueva) and speed (Oche Myers).
“Our offensive line played real well against Salpointe,” Taylor said. “I thought Tre Grant is doing a good job controlling the game and taking care of the football. We have other people chipping in like Shawn Poindexter and Xavier Villanueva and running backs like Matt Rodriguez and Dedrick Young. They’re playing their best games at the right time.”
These teams started their push to this night at almost the same moment last November. Both squads led their 2011 Division II semifinals midway through the fourth quarter. Both lost.
That gave Centennial and Ironwood Ridge a sense of urgency entering the season. The Nighthawks played the Coyotes tight in the 2010 semifinals before falling 38-28.
Several Nighthawks — Williams, Braunreiter, linebacker Scott Simmons, and receiver/defensive backs John Klass and Julien Figueroa — played key roles on that squad, then were full-timers for the next near miss in 2011.
We’re excited about it. With these kids, that has been our goal, and to finally get over (that hump) feels great,” Johnson said. “And, while we are excited, we still have a lot of work to do, and we still have to be good students and citizens in the meantime.”
Centennial’s seniors came to the Peoria powerhouse expecting to play in this game. When they arrived in 2009 the Coyotes were three-time defending state champions.
Now they don’t want to leave without a ring. For example, Ramos grew up watching his older brothers Pedro (2006) and Juan (2006-08) end their careers lifting the gold trophy.
Centennial’s only title game appearance during their careers came in 2010, a 32-17 loss to Scottsdale Chaparral. In their rematch in the 2011 Division II semifinals, the Coyotes played the Firebirds to a dead heat, but key turnovers resulted in a 31-30 loss.
All four captains — Ortiz, linebacker Wes Westbrook, guard Spencer Nathe and safety Adam Leonard — played in both of those losses, as did linebacker Dominique Hodge. From the moment last year’s semifinal ended, they’ve been focusing on this game.
“Everything we’ve done has been with the focus of getting back to state and taking state back,” Nathe said. “Everything we work for, all the training we do, is for winning state. It’s a great reward to be back and if we’re fortunate enough to win the game, that will be the perfect ending to our high school careers.”
Thanks to Chris Flora of The Explorer for his interview with Matt Johnson.