Moving On Up

The AIA shook things up in the off-season with a drastic division re-alignment. Here's a look at how moving up a division will effect some teams.

Centennial – With multiple state championships, numerous division-one players and coming off their most recent state title, it was time for the Coyotes to move up a division. Can the Coyotes still compete at a high level? There is no doubt. The road definitely won’t be easy. They were put in a region with Boulder Creek, Chaparral, Horizon, Liberty and Pinnacle. On top of that, they have a brutal non-conference line-up that includes Long Beach Poly from California, Saguaro, Basha, Highland and Hamilton. All ten of their opponents were playoff teams in 2014.

The Coyotes return a ton of talent and should be able to adjust to the jump up. They have the state’s best offensive line; three players have D1 offers (Marshal Nathe, Steven Bailey and Tanner Hawthorne). Isaac Steele returns at QB and doubles as a great corner. Replacing Dedrick Young, who rushed for 2,000 yards and signed with Nebraska, will be tough but Quentin Gomez is a good talent. On defense, the line looks solid with Randy Rodriguez, Andrew Nichols and Chris Jules and LB Bozton Sanders is one of the best in the state.

There’s no doubt in my mind the Coyotes can compete at this level but at the same time, this schedule is awfully tough.

Chaparral – A lot of people were down on the Firebirds last year but they still reached the semi-finals in D2. That just shows the expectations that have been set at Chaparral.

They got put in the same region as D1 newcomers Centennial and Liberty, which we already established is tough. In non-conference play they face D3 power Desert Edge, D1 state champ Chandler, Helix from Cali., Perry and Red Mountain. This schedule is much tougher than the ’14 version.

Chaparral struggled on offense last year, their top two QBs were out and they averaged nearly 20 points per game less then 2014. Star safety Kurt Shughart was a tough runner on offense and if he stays healthy gives them a viable threat out of the backfield. WRs Gianni Tomasi and Ryan Bright as well as TE Christian Skeptaris make up a solid receiving corps. They also break in a new coordinator.

Head coach Conrad Hamilton is a genius defensive coordinator and really pressures the QB. They have talent returning on this side of the ball in Shughart, LB Parker Walton and DE Brandon Jamison.

The 2015 Firebirds may not have as many division-one players that they have had in the past but this team is far from a pushover. In the last two years they played for a state title and made the semi’s, the cupboard isn’t bare and they can compete.

Higley – The Knights move up to D2 from D3 after going 7-4 and reaching the playoffs. All four of Higley’s losses were to playoff teams but all seven of their wins came against non-playoff teams. What does that mean? Not sure, but was something worth looking at.

The one thing that is for sure, their offense puts up points, they averaged nearly 42 points per game including a 95 point performance against Apache Junction. Record setting QB Mason Crossland is back as are three of their top four receivers.

The section they were placed creates some natural rivalries against Williams Field and Skyline and their non-section games include games against rivals Queen Creek and Campo Verde. They have a tough stretch with consecutive games against Apollo, Queen Creek, Williams Field, Skyline and Westwood that will dictate if they can be a playoff team in their first year in D2.

Liberty – This move up to D1 was kind of inevitable. The area is booming. The Lions are coming off their best season in school history, making it to the D2 state championship. Their only two losses were to D2 state champ Centennial and were by a combined 15 points.

When I went out to watch Liberty in Spring ball, I don’t recall another team having as many players as they did. There was an absolute Army of kids out there; partly due to the growth in the area and partly due to the season they just had. But the kids weren’t just bodies, the Lions have some talent. Alex Jackson, Deyton Jackson and Alex Hunter make up as solid a group of receivers as you will find. They also have a nice sized offensive line led by Brandon Sandoval and Kyle Hinton.

My biggest concern for Liberty in the jump up is, one, do they have the size on the defensive line to handle teams like Basha, Desert Ridge, Brophy and Centennial, who are all on their schedule? Two, replacing QB Tyler Wyatt.

Mark Smith takes over as head coach, replacing Dan Filleman who took the Regis Jesuit job in Colorado. Smith has coached at the state’s highest level before when he was at Millennium. Most of the rest of his staff returns, although they do break in a new offensive coordinator.

The schedule is tougher and they lose some key components (Wyatt and DL Aaron Blackwell), so expect some growing pains while Liberty adjusts but I think this program is a sleeping giant.

Queen Creek – QC had great success in D3, winning 10 or more games every year since 2010 and winning a state title in 2012. Their biggest stumbling block has been Saguaro and Williams Field, who both move up as well. They were initially put in D1 but more appropriately ended up in D2.

The Bulldogs were placed in a section with Poston Butte, CDO, Ironwood Ridge and Marana Mt. View and I think they can compete against those teams. But what could dramatically effect their season is their very tough non-section schedule. Desert Mountain, Hamilton, Campo Verde, Williams Field, Higley and a late game against Westview could make for a tough 2015 season.

Former QB Joe Germaine is back as OC but unlike many former QBs who like to air it out, Germaine and Queen Creek have had success running the football. Weston Barlow departs after rushing for 2,000+ yards two years in a row, in fact QC has had a 2,000 yard rusher three years in a row. Gavin Danielson will attempt to make it four in a row.

Winning ten games again with this schedule will be tough but teams that slow games down by running the football and controlling the clock always give themselves a chance for success.

Saguaro – What else did Saguaro have to prove at the D3 level? They have won four out of the five last state championships and in their first year in D2, they enter it is the pre-season favorite.

The Sabercats are absolutely loaded. They have the state’s top recruit in CB/WR Byron Murphy, a QB committed to Wisconsin in Kare Lyles, one of the state’s best offensive lines with two players with D1 offers in Kayden Lyles and Corey Stephens and a roster that has three other players with D1 offers (WR Julian Carter, WR Robert Branch-Williams and safety K.J. Jarrell).

Like I said, Saguaro looks like the team to beat in D2, they do face some stiff D1 competition early in the season against Centennial and Pinnacle.

Seton Catholic – Seton moves up to D3 from D4 where they were state runners up in ’14. They also break in a new head coach in former Brophy assistant Gary Galante. The Sentinels have been known for their offensive output (51 ppg in ’14) but their defense actually pitched seven shutouts last year. That is exactly Galante’s cup of tea. He has been known as a hard nosed defensive mind.

Seton loses their QB, top rusher and top receiver but I think they have a manageable non-conference schedule and were placed in a section that they can compete in. The toughest task will be making the playoffs in a 57 team Division-Three, where going 8-2 might keep you out of the post season.

Williams Field – I don’t think Steve Campbell gets enough credit for what he has accomplished at Williams Field, winning 73 games since he started the program in 2008.

When I look ahead to ’15 and look at their schedule, I don’t think there are any games where they are outmatched; I think they can hang with every team on the schedule.

Campbell, a former QB at Arizona State, does a fine job with QBs and Weston Murphy is a vastly under-rated player. Replacing 2,700 yard rusher Braedyn Bushman is the key. DE Noah Gerald returns to lead the defense.

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