Sandra Day O’Connor football is a playoff team once again — and the Eagles are here to contend

The AIA has announced the playoff brackets for all divisions of Arizona high school football — 1A through 6A, and the Open Division.

Coming in as the third seed in 6A is Sandra Day O’Connor, following a highly successful 5-3 regular season.

The Eagles went 3-1 in league play to finish second in the deep, ultra-competitive Region 7. To do so, they had to defeat another playoff team in Shadow Ridge (No. 8 in 6A) and knock off two of last year’s playoff teams in Mountain Ridge and Valley Vista.

This marks O’Connor’s first playoff appearance — and winning season — since 2015, when the Eagles roster boasted experienced seniors at almost every position in all three phases of the game. The next year, new head coach Steve Casey inherited a squad with hardly any varsity experience, and O’Connor went 10-20 from 2016-19 while playing one of the more difficult schedules in Arizona.

The past two years were marked by clear flashes of promise, but the Eagles broke through neither season. The 2018 campaign featured plenty of upperclassmen talent, but close losses against good or great programs dampened hopes. That season, they lost to Basha, Perry, Chaparral and Liberty by a combined 17 points and finished 4-6.

With a strong senior class gone and star Class of 2021 running back Donavin Fontaine injured the whole year, the 2019 campaign turned into another rebuilding season. O’Connor had encouraging moments, including a season-ending win against a playoff team in Mountain Ridge, but the Eagles finished 3-7.

Entering 2020, O’Connor had six all-region players departed and quite a bit less continuity than other 6A foes, especially on offense. In our season preview, we gave the Eagles a chance to make the playoffs if everything broke right, but predicted another rebuilding season:

“… because of the pandemic, only eight teams will make the 6A playoffs instead of the usual 16. While a region title helps the cause immensely, it still doesn’t guarantee a postseason berth. A playoff spot for the Eagles remains extremely unlikely, but a magical season for any team in the region can’t be ruled out. …

“Odds are, Sandra Day O’Connor probably isn’t going to contend for a playoff spot, especially given this year’s smaller 6A field. It’s certainly realistic for the Eagles to be competitive every game, but they might not come particularly close to winning their region while going against more experienced teams on a weekly basis.”

So much for that — the rebuild and the wait are over. The Eagles are not only in the playoffs, but in fact the No. 3 seed, leaving zero doubt by the end of the regular season as to whether they’d qualify.

They aren’t here just to say they made it, either. They’re here to do what they did all season — battle, stick together and turn heads.

“We’re a family,” said junior middle linebacker Brandon Craddock, who said before the season that O’Connor’s hunger was a key that would separate it from its competition.

“The whole season we focused on the phrase ‘we over me’ and we really embraced it.”

Craddock has posted a staggering 108 tackles and 16 tackles for loss in eight games this season.

The Eagles were poised for a good defensive year coming into the season with the likes of Craddock, linebacker Brevin Czosnyka and defensive lineman Gabriel Monaco leading one of the state’s top front sevens. Their young secondary has held up against formidable passing attacks as well.

And the offense hasn’t missed a beat. Quarterbacks Seth Felts and Dallas Kuenzi entered the season ready to step up, and the Eagles have six players with more than 100 receiving yards, led by James Groff’s 699. An offensive line with no all-region returners has consistently created space for the playmakers.

The biggest story on that end has been Fontaine’s return. He’s made the most of what could’ve been a nightmarish upperclassmen tenure — missing his entire junior season with an injury, and a shortened senior season that almost didn’t happen because of COVID-19.

“This summer … is when everyone on the team knew that we could be a playoff team. Our coaches always told us we have enough talent to play a ninth game this year and everyone believed it,” Fontaine said.

“What I believe makes (the team) special is the attitude and determination to do great things and to prove everyone wrong. We’ve been counted out for years now, and the fact that we know we can be a great team is what fuels us, makes us hungrier to prove the doubters wrong.”

Fontaine has 827 rushing yards through eight games and is the team’s second-leading receiver with 338 yards. Add his 124 yards as a special teams returner and he’s averaging more than 160 yards per game. There’s a strong argument that he’s the best offensive player in Arizona without a D-1 offer.

With so much of this season’s core coming back next year, the Eagles could be even better in 2021. But this isn’t a program focused on what’s on the horizon, because this is a team winning now. And they have a playoff game against Basha this Friday to gear up for.

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