Rested or rusty? The answer to how Mesquite comes out of its unexpected two weeks off after its last two opponents had to cancel because of COVID-19 positive cases will determine whether the Wildcats successfully defend their state title.
The missing two weeks cost the Wildcats in the final rankings, however, as they dropped to the No. 3 seed in the bracket and a testy quarterfinal matchup with Northwest Christian, which has allowed just 11.3 points per game.
“I’ve never had two weeks off, but then, I’ve never dealt with anything like we have this year with COVID-19,” said coach Scott Hare, whose team didn’t find out until Friday that Washington would have to forfeit their play-in matchup.
“Monday through Thursday last week was like a normal week for us, so hopefully, we’re in a good routine. I hope we’ll roll through our week of practice and be ready to go on Friday.”
American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek: Last year’s 3A state champion has acquitted itself quite well in its debut season in 4A, drawing the No. 2 seed and a quarterfinal matchup with St. Mary’s, which pulled the upset of the play-in round by winning at Poston Butte. Patriots senior defensive end Micah Ferrin leads the state with 27 tackles for loss.
Cactus: The Cobras are not a usual No. 4 seed. They are a playoff perennial, making their 20th consecutive state appearance, and their only two losses were to 5A top seed Sunrise Mountain and Open No. 8 Desert Edge. They might have the most balanced offense among the eight qualifiers, passing for 1,425 yards and running for 1,351 while averaging 38 points per game.
Casa Grande: The Cougars played, in essence, an independent schedule en route to grabbing the No. 1 seed in the bracket. When the other four Kino Region teams decided to opt out of the fall season, they pieced together their schedule, losing in Week 1 to Open No. 6 Salpointe Catholic but rolling through their remaining opponents. Dual-threat junior quarterback Angel Flores (1,100 passing yards, 777 rushing) has accounted for 25 touchdowns.
It seems a bit odd to call the only undefeated team in the field a sleeper, but considering Coconino’s recent postseason history — or more accurately, its lack of postseason history — makes the Panthers an intriguing No. 5 seed. They finally returned to the playoffs last year after a 13-year absence, losing in Round 1 to Gila Ridge, and their play-in victory over Estrella Foothills was their first postseason win since 2000. Senior running back Zach Bennett (1,167 yards, 15 TDs) certainly will test the Cactus defense.
Quarterfinal winners: Casa Grande, Cactus, ALA-Queen Creek, Mesquite
Semifinal winners: Cactus, Mesquite
With three of the most dynamic athletes in the conference on the roster — quarterback Ty Thompson, the state’s No. 1 recruit and an Oregon commit, wideout Eric Lira and receiver/linebacker Andrew Morris — we’ll bet on rest, not rust, and that the Wildcats will hold off Cactus to win back-to-back titles.
Meet the state’s top players by position: