Arizona high school football at midseason: 6A storylines, surprises, title favorites, coach and player of the year candidates

We’ve passed the halfway point of the regular season in Arizona high school football, and this week we’ll be examining where things stand in each of the state’s six conferences — including the top storylines, surprises, championship contenders and individual awards candidates. Here’s our capsule look at the 6A conference.

Jacob Cisneros (Boulder Creek) photo by Elena Bernardo – EMB Photoshop

Storylines

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The weekly questions seem to be:

  • Which program has to go into COVID-19 quarantine? 
  • Can the quarantined team’s opponent scramble to find someone to fill the hole in its schedule?

From Chaparral before the season began to Perry and Desert Ridge before Week 4, coaches, players and athletic directors have needed to demonstrate incredible flexibility to make sure the season has gone as smoothly as possible during a pandemic.

Boulder Creek coach Anthony Casarella described how just last week, he found out about 30 hours before the Jaguars’ game with Sandra Day O’Connor that he would be without two starters because of positive tests, and his staff had to put in extra work to tweak the game plan to account for their absence.

“It’s been shocking each week to look at the scores, and you see one and go, ‘Wow!’” he said. “Then, you have to ask yourself, did that team lose someone to COVID?”

Inconsistency seemingly has become a watchword in Arizona football, and some of it comes down to the lack of field time most teams experienced when the state shut down offseason in-person training in March.

Teams such as Casarella’s Jaguars (4-1) and Mountain View Mesa (5-0) that returned large senior classes have avoided some of the ups and downs that have plagued other teams that alternate big wins with head-scratching defeats. 

“Being consistent has definitely been a key for us,” said Casarella, in his fifth year as head coach and 16th in the Boulder Creek program. “We have a fantastic senior class that we’ve brought up since their eighth-grade year. There’s a consistency there. We’ve not gotten away from what we do best.”

Sean Hegarty, who took over at Shadow Ridge in January, didn’t have that opportunity to build much consistency before the pandemic hit, so he had to rely on kids buying in over Zoom meetings and a short period after restrictions were lifted.

“Football became an outlet for them,” he said. “It was an opportunity for them not only to prepare for football season, but to socialize, even with the difficulties of social distancing and masks. Whatever we’ve thrown at them each week in practice, they’re believing in everything we’re doing and executing on Friday night. It’s definitely been fantastic.”

Still, many coaches are left wondering what might have been.

Casarella, for example, named eight captains (including New Mexico-bound quarterback Bear Milacek) to lead Zoom meetings and keep teammates in line, but not having that hands-on instruction until things reopened in September still makes a difference.

“We found ways to make it a great offseason,” Casarella said. “But I’ll always wonder what we could have been like if we’d had that time back.”

Bear Milacek photo by Elena Bernardo – EMB Photoshop

Two teams that seemingly haven’t missed a beat despite the pandemic remain on a collision course for an epic Week 8 showdown.

Chandler has climbed to No. 3 in the SBLive Super 25 rankings, and the way the Wolves have rumbled through the first half of the schedule, they have the look of a team that could finish the year No. 1.

Standing in their way could be a Hamilton team fresh off a Week 4 nationally televised victory over Saguaro. The Huskies, who pushed the Wolves to overtime last season, are No. 24 in the SBLive rankings after their victory at Desert Vista on Friday. The Hamilton-Chandler showdown in Week 8 could feature at least two dozen FBS prospects.

Surprises

Anyone have Corona del Sol starting the season 5-0? Outside of the four corners of the Aztecs’ Tempe campus, probably no one else. Yet, here they are, 5-0 for the first time in the past 12 years, announcing themselves as perhaps the biggest surprise of the 2020 season.

“We knew we had a better team this year than last,” coach Jon Becktold said. “The kids have done an outstanding job through all this COVID stuff. We’re just fortunate to be where we’re at right now.”

Senior quarterback Quade Swearingen talked about how his teammates play with a chip on their shoulders.

“We have a group of guys who want to win some games and put us on the map,” he said a couple of weeks ago, and they’ve certainly done that with a balanced attack led by Swearingen (73.5 completion percentage, 838 yards, eight touchdowns) and junior running back Anyale Velazquez (705 yards, 10 TDs).

The defense has posted two shutouts and allowed just 166 yards and eight points per game. Senior linebacker Tudor Georgescu leads the team with 32 tackles and five sacks. 

“We’re a lot more physical team than last year,” Becktold said. “Playing those tough teams at the end of the year showed the kids the need to get in the weight room, and that’s really helped us out.”

Can the team’s underdog mentality carry the Aztecs to their first playoff win since 2008? They finish with winnable games against Dobson and Westwood, then a Week 8 matchup with fellow surprise unbeaten Mountain View in Mesa. 

Only eight teams will make the 6A playoffs this year, so while a 7-1 or 8-0 record should get Corona del Sol into the field, the Aztecs might not get the computer ranking necessary to open at home. The way they’re playing, though, they won’t care.

On the flip side, who would have thought Brophy Prep would sit 0-5 at this point? Losing starting quarterback EJ Manuel in the first half of the season opener against Notre Dame Prep blew up months of planning in an instant, throwing three untested quarterbacks into the breach. 

Playing a schedule that featured three Open qualifiers from a year ago, the results were to be expected. The Broncos have been shut out twice, and other than a 28-27 loss to Boulder Creek in Week 4, they have struggled to create much offense, averaging 166 yards per game.

Burning question

Which 6A teams will make the Open Division cut? 

The first Open Division rankings come out Tuesday, which will give us a good idea of who are the favorites to make the Elite 8 a month from now. Chandler, Hamilton and Centennial would seem like top-eight locks in the initial reveal. 

Corona del Sol, fellow 5-0 team Mountain View (Mesa), and 4-1 teams Highland, Shadow Ridge and Boulder Creek have gaudier records, but the rankings might not give them much love over teams like Liberty or any of the Region 3 teams also at 3-2 — Casteel, Queen Creek and Williams Field.

Mikey Keene (Chandler) photo by Liebrock Photography

Title favorites

The first rankings release will give us an idea of which surprise 5-0 and 4-1 teams have a chance at cracking the eight-team 6A playoff field. Remember that how a team finishes in region play means nothing — the rankings dictate playoff qualification — which means teams such as Boulder Creek and Shadow Ridge, both 4-1 in Region 7, aren’t guaranteed anything. 

“With the algorithm the way it is, we’ll have to see where we’re at,” said Hegarty, whose team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2013. “We’re going to fight and do what we can to get in. If we can squeeze in, then it’s anybody’s ballgame.”

Coaches like Becktold and Casarella have heard rumors about where they’ll land entering the initial reveal, but they insist they haven’t given it much thought.

“We’ll fall where we fall in the end,” Casarella said. “I think we’re at that level and belong in the playoffs, but it’s going to be very hard to be in the playoffs this year.”

All three Region 3 teams in the 3-2 merry-go-round ultimately will not make the Open Division field, and whichever of Casteel, Queen Creek and Williams Field doesn’t qualify for the Open bracket will jump to the top of the 6A title contenders list. Defending champion Liberty and Highland, if they don’t get into the Open, also would make the list. 

Finally, don’t sleep on Basha — if the Bears win the rest of their games, including a Week 7 matchup with Mountain View (Mesa) that should decide the Region 5 title, they might sneak into the field riding high on a six-game win streak.

Offensive player of the year candidates

Jacob Cisneros, RB, Boulder Creek

Cisneros has drawn interest from several Ivy League schools, who might get themselves a steal based on how the senior’s season has gone. He had 1,294 all-purpose yards in the Jaguars’ first four games, including 608 on the ground with eight touchdowns and 20 catches (five TDs) for 295 receiving yards.

Max Davis, RB, Highland

Back-to-back weeks during which he ran for 534 yards and scored 10 touchdowns propelled Davis atop the 6A rushing list with 783 yards and 12 TDs. He’ll need to continue his video-game pace for the Hawks to have a shot against SBLive Top 25 teams Hamilton and Chandler the next two weeks.

Mikey Keene, QB, Chandler

Keene finally threw his first interception of the season in the fourth quarter of the Wolves’ Week 5 victory over Centennial. Otherwise, the Central Florida commit has seamlessly guided the state’s most explosive offense, throwing for 1,043 yards and 12 touchdowns despite not playing four quarters in most games.

Kai Millner, QB, Higley

No quarterback has been more productive through five weeks than the Cal-Berkeley commit, who’s thrown for 1,197 yards (63 completion percentage) and 10 touchdowns. He’s also run for two scores and caught a touchdown pass on a flea flicker, but the Knights have been one of the unluckiest teams in 6A, losing to Casteel and Williams Field on late-game scores.

Isaiah Newcombe, WR, Casteel

His 90-yard game-winning touchdown catch against Higley made the highlight reel, and the UCLA-bound receiver has come up big all season for the Colts in their first year as a 6A program, making 33 catches for 512 yards and four touchdowns through four games.

Kai Millner photo by Paul Etnire

Defensive player of the year candidates

Brandon Buckner, DE, Chandler

The son of former NFL defensive tackle Brentson Buckner and an Oregon commit, Brandon has dominated up front for the nation’s No. 3 team, making 25 tackles (12 for loss), six sacks and 12 hurries in the Wolves’ first four games.

Russell Davis II, DE, Hamilton

Davis had a breakthrough performance on ESPN2 against Saguaro with three sacks among his eight tackles. For the season, the son of former NFL defensive tackle Russell Davis has 28 tackles (eight for loss), seven sacks and three hurries.

DJ Gleash, DE, Centennial

Gleash has been among the state’s top pass-rushing threats, with five sacks among his 38 tackles in the Coyotes’ first four games.

Trey Reynolds, LB, Queen Creek

Reynolds, a Utah commit, led 6A with 62 tackles through four games. He’s also chipped in on offense, scoring four touchdowns during the Bulldogs’ 3-2 start.

Malaki Ta’ase, DL, Mountain View (Mesa)

It’s been a breakthrough season for the Toros junior, who leads the state with 10 sacks among his 49 tackles (14 for loss) to help his team start 5-0 for the first time in the past 12 years.

Malaki Ta’ase photo by Joanna Finkenkeller

Coach of the year candidates

Jon Becktold, Corona del Sol

The Aztecs haven’t been 5-0 since 2008, but with an unheralded group that returned only three all-region players, they’ve already exceeded their 2019 win total with three weeks left and clinched their first winning season since 2015.

“We don’t look at the rankings and that stuff,” Becktold said of his team’s playoff chances. “We just play the teams on our schedule. We’re just getting ready to play Dobson.”

Mike Fell, Mountain View (Mesa)

The Toros are another program reaching heights it hasn’t hit since the last year of the George W. Bush administration. Fell seamlessly worked in a new starter at quarterback (Willy Roberts, 877 passing yards, six TDs) and running back (Reese Marziale, 389 yards, six TDs), and the defense has forced 10 turnovers and already has more sacks (27) than it recorded all of last season.

Sean Hegarty, Shadow Ridge

It could not have been easy to implement a new system entering a program as an outsider during a pandemic, as Hegarty had to do with the Stallions. Other than a Week 4 hiccup against Sandra Day O’Connor, the transition has gone smoothly — although this week’s matchup with Boulder Creek will prove critical to both teams’ chances at making the playoff field.

“It’s a big game for both teams,” Hegarty said. “They’re playing some really good football, so we’re really going to have to be dialed in. It’s going to take a group effort in all three phases.”

Mike Zdebski, Hamilton

It also couldn’t have been easy to blend so many transfers with the talent left from a team that pushed Chandler to overtime in 2019 and reached the Open semifinals. Zdebski has helped make the transition as smooth as possible and has the team humming toward another Open berth and a looming showdown with the Wolves that could be the game of the year (unless they meet again in the Open final?).

2020 ARIZONA HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL PREVIEW

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