6A Region 7 Southwest football preview: 10 questions, projected order of finish

The 2020 Arizona high school football season kicks off this week. Here are 10 questions for 6A Region 7 (Southwest). At the bottom is our predicted order of finish.

1. Does Region 7 have the most parity in 6A?

Entering the season, it certainly appears that way. Every team has a legitimate chance of coming in first — or, for that matter, last. That’s not wishful thinking or a cliche, but the result of a field in which not one team won a playoff game last year, and not one projects to be a pushover in 2020.

As Chris Eaton of ArizonaVarsity points out: “The combined record of the schools last year was 33-29 … After you take out the four teams that made the Open last season, all six of these schools ranked between 10 and 19 (in 6A).”

2. So, can any team be considered the favorite?

Based solely on 2019 performance, La Joya Community might have been that team. The Lobos posted the best record among the six teams last year, going 8-2 in the regular season with an undefeated run through region play en route to a playoff berth. That region title included beating Shadow Ridge convincingly and blowing out second-place Valley Vista.

The teams in the Tolleson Union High School district (La Joya Community, plus three teams in Region 6) only recently were cleared to begin practicing, however, and won’t play any games until late October.

3. Can Boulder Creek’s playmaking firepower be matched?

While receiver could be a weak spot for the Jaguars, their quarterback/running back tandem of Bear Milacek and Jacob Cisneros is next-level — literally, as both players will play at Division I colleges.

Milacek is a 3-star New Mexico commit, and Cisneros is coming off a co-player of the year season in the Desert Valley. He was first-team all-region at running back and punt returner after compiling 1,472 rushing yards, 524 receiving yards, 520 return yards and 18 touchdowns.

Valley Vista is returning the senior quarterback/wide receiver combination of Burton Delay IV and Liam Kelleher. Sandra Day O’Connor has senior running back Donavin Fontaine returning to lead the offense. Shadow Ridge and Mountain Ridge have promising veteran offensive lines and talented young backs ready to emerge. But Boulder Creek’s duo is one of the best in the state and should prove to be this region’s best.

Boulder Creek photo by Brian Kafenbaum

4. Can La Joya Community still reach the playoffs after late start, departure of senior core?

The Lobos will not play any games for at least the first three weeks of the season. The good news for them is the AIA Executive Board will allow teams that start late to still have a chance to qualify for the playoffs. The bad news? Last year’s squad graduated 12 all-region players, including starting quarterback and region player of the year Miguel Valdovinos.

La Joya Community does have several upperclassmen who know what it takes to win. That list includes an all-purpose monster in DeAndre Robinson, middle linebacker Zachary Blackwood, wide receiver Israel Yturralde, offensive linemen Bryan Toribio and Angel Reed, and defensive back Dwight Williams. Will it be enough?

5. Will Shadow Ridge be disadvantaged by onboarding a new head coach during the pandemic?

Football teams are large and have several moving parts. Taking over a program during a pandemic makes the job that much more difficult.

Sean Hegarty, the first-year head coach at Shadow Ridge, believes the program has strengthened as a unit by embracing the challenges of undergoing personnel turnover during the pandemic.

“This group of young men has done an incredible job adapting to constant changes while keeping a positive attitude,” Hegarty said. “Their ability to roll with the punches and follow ever-changing protocols has made them stronger as a team and individuals.”

The Stallions have a firm goal of winning the region title and making the playoffs — and enough talent to have a fighting chance. To come anywhere close to accomplishing those goals, they’ll need to do a near-flawless job of tuning their new spread offense up to spec in the hardest timeframe to change coaches in recent memory.

6. Is Sandra Day O’Connor’s rebuilding phase complete?

The Eagles have improved bit by bit, year by year since Steve Casey took over in 2017 following a 1-9 season. They’ve carried losing records and haven’t contended for any achievements in his three years, but they usually play a tough nonleague schedule and are clearly progressing.

In 2019, Sandra Day O’Connor took well-contested losses all season before upending Mountain Ridge in the season finale to tie the Mountain Lions in the standings. Their record was 3-7, but the improvement was obvious.

Will 2020 be the year the Eagles become a contender? That’s their goal, and they return plenty of talent, particularly on defense. Running back Donavin Fontaine is back from an injury that cut short his junior season, but the loss of quarterback Dylan Simonton and multiple offensive linemen could prove insurmountable.

Sandra Day O’Connor might still have a season of rebuilding left, but don’t rule out the feisty, hungry Eagles showing everyone they’re back.

7. Can Valley Vista overcome the loss of three all-region running backs?

Of the eight graduated Monsoon all-region honorees, three were running backs. The team has one of the Southwest’s best returning quarterback/wide receiver combinations in Burton Delay IV and Liam Kelleher, but Valley Vista picked up more than half of its yards on the ground last season.

Delay is a true dual-threat — he rushed for five touchdowns and nearly 400 yards in 2019 — but the Monsoon will need someone to emerge in the backfield.

8. Can Mountain Ridge take the leap with a new playmaking core?

The Mountain Lions played .500 ball and made the playoffs last season, but they have bigger aspirations this year. Plenty of talent and senior leadership is returning, but they have holes to fill at quarterback and running back, and they lost the majority of their receiving yardage, too.

Mountain Ridge still has the makings of a good offense, however. Seniors Justin Ritter and Sean Sisco lead what could be one of the region’s best offensive lines. The Mountain Lions have two talented quarterback options in senior Cole Mitchell (a returning receiver) and promising sophomore Brendan Anderson. They have a couple other returning receivers in Tyler Strow and future Division I player Deric English, plus some breakthrough candidates such as Sam Thielen.

9. How much will Region 7 be impacted by the smaller playoff field?

Probably more than all the other regions. During a normal season, the 6A bracket would have 16 teams, and a few others would make the Open Division field. Under those circumstances, every Southwest team might be a threat to reach the postseason.

Remember, all six of these teams were ranked between 10 and 19 in 6A last year — four made the playoffs and two just barely missed. Now imagine if last season’s conference playoff bracket only took eight teams. Not one of those four teams would’ve made the playoffs.

That raises the question:

10. Will anybody make the playoffs?

To get a postseason berth, someone likely would need to go at least 4-1 in the region, and possibly 5-0. It wouldn’t be surprising if every Southwest team finished no better than 3-2 and no worse than 2-3.

Will one team separate from the pack? It’s possible, but one bad week could end a playoff bid this year.

Predicted order of finish

1. Boulder Creek

2. Valley Vista

3. Shadow Ridge

4. Sandra Day O’Connor

5. Mountain Ridge

(Note: Given its late start and uncertain schedule, La Joya Community was not factored into region projections.)

More on each team

Read more about the Southwest teams at the following links:

Bear Milacek, Jacob Cisneros could help make Boulder Creek a surprise contender in Arizona 6A football

Mountain Ridge football team has questions — but might also have answers

Sandra Day O’Connor football still rebuilding, but Eagles are hungry to ‘take program to next level’

Shadow Ridge football has new coach, new system, strong senior core

Valley Vista football will be Valley Vista football — steady, competitive, in the playoff race

Thank you for joining the discussion on SBLive!

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