What we learned in first week of Arizona high school football playoffs: Looking back at a crazy quarterfinals Friday

The Arizona high school football state quarterfinals took place Friday in 2A, 3A, 4A, 5A, 6A and the Open Division. Here’s a look at some of the week’s top headlines.

Hamilton photo by Will Edmonds

Open | Bracket

Hamilton handles QB’s absence with ease in quarterfinal victory over Corona del Sol

Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said at midweek that he expected junior quarterback Nicco Marchiol to be ready for the Huskies’ quarterfinal matchup with Corona del Sol.

When Marchiol, his parents and team doctors determined the prudent course was to sit out and rest his bruised left shoulder, though, Zdebski wasn’t too worried. He had ultimate faith that sophomore backup Roch Cholowsky could handle the job.

Cholowsky has committed to UCLA for baseball, “but I think he’s a Division 1 quarterback or punter as well. He’s an athlete,” Zdebski said. “There were no reservations there. Everyone had confidence in Roch.”

Cholowsky was solid in the Huskies’ 50-0 romp over the Aztecs, going 11 of 14 for 136 yards and an interception. With Hamilton’s running game firing on all cylinders, he didn’t need to be anything more.

Seniors Noah Schmidt (147 yards, four touchdowns) and Rodney Clemente (179 yards, three TDs) battered a Corona del Sol defense that hadn’t allowed more than 24 points to an opponent all season. 

The Aztecs had faced only two teams that finished in the top half of the 6A rankings entering Friday’s quarterfinal, and that inexperience against top competition showed in the Open spotlight. 

Hamilton held them to 79 yards of total offense and forced five consecutive three-and-outs to open the second half as the hosts built upon their 17-0 halftime lead.

While the Aztecs (8-1) saw their best season since 2008 — the previous time they won eight games — come to an end, the Huskies (7-1) advanced to the Open semifinals for the second time, where they’ll play host to Salpointe Catholic on Friday.

The Lancers (7-0) advanced to the semifinals when Saguaro had to forfeit because of COVID-19 quarantine. Salpointe Catholic has a different look this season under first-year coach Eric Rogers, with two University of Arizona prospects (junior QB Treyson Bourguet and WR Elijah Barclay) leading an offense no longer reliant on two-time Arizona player of the year Bijon Robinson.

The other semifinal matches four-time defending state champion Chandler (8-0), ranked No. 3 in the SBLive Power 25, against Liberty (6-3) in a rematch from Week 1, when the Wolves started the season with a 44-10 victory.

Chandler opened defense of its Open title with a 52-0 rout of Desert Edge, forcing four turnovers while running back Eli Sanders (149 yards, three TDs) and quarterback Mikey Keene (24 of 31, 311 yards, two TDs) had big nights.

The Lions, last year’s 6A champions, avenged a Week 8 loss to crosstown rival Centennial with a 25-24 victory in their quarterfinal. They scored the go-ahead points with 1:19 to play when freshman backup Navi Bruzon threw a two-point conversion pass to starting quarterback Brock Mast following Josef Pennella’s two-yard touchdown run.

6A | Bracket

Feeling ‘blessed’ to make playoffs, Chaparral seeks to make most of its opportunity

After missing the first three weeks of the season because of COVID-19 quarantine, Chaparral wasn’t about to complain about missing out on the Open Division dreams it harbored coming into the year.

Even the fact that the Firebirds probably deserved a better seed than the No. 7 they received (partly because those missing games cost them the potential to garner critical ranking points) didn’t bother them as they prepared for their 6A quarterfinal at No. 2 Queen Creek.

“We felt blessed that we even had a spot,” said senior running back Jared Williams, who ran for 184 yards and three touchdowns in a 26-8 victory over the Bulldogs.

Jared Williams / Shari Miller – SLM Images

Queen Creek’s Davey Morales returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown that served as a wake-up call for the Firebirds (4-2), who came up with perhaps their best game of the season.

“When they made that return, we were like, OK, those guys can hang, so let’s go and get it done,” Williams said. “Our offensive line was 100 percent on point all game. Every one of them was doing what they needed to do, and when they do that, it opens up the field for us to make plays.

“Our offense was firing on all parts, and our defense was insane — hands down its best performance.”

Chaparral, seeking its first championship since 2011, will travel to Sandra Day O’Connor in next week’s semifinals after the Eagles (6-3) went overtime to defeat Basha 27-21, with Seth Felts scoring on a five-yard keeper to secure the program’s first playoff win since 2010 and first semifinal berth ever.

“We know never to take them lightly,” said Williams, referencing three- and four-point victories over Sandra Day O’Connor during his sophomore and junior years. “They can play. We know that. Everyone just needs to stay locked in and do what they need to do for us to succeed.”

The other semifinal matches top seed Boulder Creek (8-1) against No. 4 Highland (6-3). The Jaguars got another monster game from senior running back Jacob Cisneros, who ran for three touchdowns and caught a 77-yard scoring pass from Bear Milacek in the fourth quarter to seal a 38-22 victory over Shadow Ridge.

For the Hawks, junior quarterback Gage Dayley threw a career-high-tying four touchdown passes in a 30-20 victory over Casteel. Dayley also threw for four touchdowns in his second career start last season — a 49-10 victory over Boulder Creek.

5A | Bracket

‘I had no doubt.’ Ironwood erases 20-point deficit in second half to advance to semifinals

Even when Ironwood trailed Desert Mountain 27-7 deep into the third quarter of their 5A quarterfinal, the Eagles didn’t lose faith.

“We’ve been saying all year that football is the most redeeming game there is,” coach Chris Rizzo said. “Every play is a new play, every quarter a new quarter. The kids embraced that philosophy to the fullest.”

With San Diego State commit William Haskell leading the comeback, the Eagles (6-2) erased that 20-point deficit over the final 15 minutes to earn their first postseason victory since 2005, storming back for a 35-30 win.

“We had the confidence that we could score the points we needed and piece together a defense that could make enough stops,” Rizzo said.

“I had no doubt. We just had to go out and execute.”

Haskell accounted for four touchdowns during the Eagles’ rally, running for two scores, throwing for a third and catching a touchdown pass on a flea-flicker.

“Will really embodies a true dual-threat quarterback,” Rizzo said. “He can run and throw proficiently and do both better than most quarterbacks can do either.”

The victory, combined with No. 7 Notre Dame Prep (5-2) knocking out second-seeded Sunnyslope 42-7 behind three rushing touchdowns by Luke Nash, means the Eagles get one more home game this year. The sixth seeds will play host to the Saints on Friday looking to reach the championship game for the first time since 2002.

“Notre Dame always has a good football team with a great tradition,” Rizzo said. “We’re looking forward to the challenge.”

The only higher seed to win its quarterfinal was top seed Sunrise Mountain (7-2), which beat Verrado 35-14 for its second win over the Vipers in the past three weeks. Tommy Arnold’s 45-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter and a 35-yard interception return for a score by Aydan Guenther helped seal the victory after Verrado closed to within 21-14.

The Mustangs will take on No. 5 Campo Verde (5-2) after last year’s 5A finalist won at Cactus Shadows 38-14 behind another big game from senior running back Caden Calloway (201 yards, three TDs).

William Haskell / Ironwood High School

4A | Bracket

Cactus hopes to put unfinished business behind it during postseason run

The Cactus football team’s motto this season has been “Unfinished Business,” referring to last year’s failed two-point conversion attempt against eventual 4A champion Mesquite that cost the Cobras a spot in their first state title game since 2011.

With a 41-7 victory over previously undefeated Coconino in Friday’s quarterfinals, Cactus again finds itself one win from the final, hungry to take that next step back toward the level it achieved from 2003-11, when the Cobras made five final appearances and won two titles.

“We were hoping to get back to this point, make up for it and win a championship,” Cactus coach Joseph Ortiz said.

The Cobras improved to 8-1 all-time against the Panthers by bottling up their star runner, senior Zach Bennett, for the third consecutive year. Bennett finished his career with more than 4,100 yards, but Friday, he matched his career low of 39 yards — the same total he had in a 2018 loss to Cactus.

“Their strength is running the ball, and ours is our front seven,” Ortiz said. “We knew they were a good team, but this was not a good matchup for them.”

The Cobras (7-2) led 13-7 at halftime but took control in the third quarter. Aki Pulu ran for a touchdown, then returned an interception 30 yards for a backbreaking score. When quarterback Will Galvan kept on the option read and ran in for a touchdown, the lead had ballooned to 35-7 with 3:37 left in the quarter.

“Once we figured out what they were doing defensively, we were able to execute and score,” Ortiz said.

Cactus has won six in a row since a 1-2 start entering its semifinal matchup with top seed Casa Grande (7-1), which rallied from a 30-27 deficit with 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 47-30 victory over Peoria.

R.J. Keaton rushed for 235 yards and three touchdowns, and Justin Campbell returned an interception 13 yards for a score shortly after the Cougars regained the lead in the fourth.

It’s do-everything quarterback Angel Flores, who threw for 194 yards and a score and ran for 117 yards and two touchdowns, that has Ortiz and the Cobras’ full attention.

“He’s a really good quarterback who’s tough to stop,” Ortiz said. “They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason. We need to have our best effort to make it to the state championship.”

They might get a rematch with Mesquite after the Wildcats (7-1) knocked out Northwest Christian 27-10 behind University of Oregon-bound quarterback Ty Thompson, who threw for two touchdowns and ran for a third.

First, Mesquite will need to get past American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek, last year’s 3A champion which moved up to 4A this fall. The Patriots (8-1) scored 27 unanswered points, with Logan Hubler’s two-yard touchdown run late in the first half starting the run, to defeat St. Mary’s 40-14.

3A | Bracket

Snowflake absorbs barrage to come out on top in quarterfinal vs. Phoenix Christian

Phoenix Christian had Howard Russell.

Snowflake had Terren Green and Camden Brimhall.

Thankfully for the Lobos, two heads proved better than one in their 3A quarterfinal against the Cougars, as they pulled out a 38-21 victory that advanced them to the semifinals for the third consecutive season.

Russell, the state’s regular-season rushing champion, carried the ball 40 times for 224 yards and two touchdowns and returned a kickoff 90 yards for a score. 

The Lobos (8-1), though, held Russell to a season-low 5.6 yards per carry, forcing the Cougars into long, time-consuming drives that three times ended with turnovers on downs. Snowflake turned those fourth-down stops into 17 points — its eventual margin of victory.

“Russell is the real deal at running back,” said Lobos coach Kay Solomon. “But we were able to shut him down from making big plays except for that kick return.”

Green finished with 163 yards and three touchdowns on 12 carries, and Brimhall scored on two short runs. Even though the Cougars ran nearly twice as many plays (64-33), the Lobos outgained them 349-339.

“We spent a lot of time on the field on defense, but our defense really played well,” Solomon said. “And our offense moved the ball really well. We scored on every possession.”

Now, the Lobos get a rematch with American Leadership Academy-Gilbert North (8-1), which knocked out last year’s 2A state champion, Round Valley, with a 38-15 win. Sophomore Adam Damante, stepping in at quarterback for starter Jack Ricedorff early in the game, ran for two touchdowns and threw for another for the Eagles.

Snowflake handed the Eagles their only loss of the season, 22-20 in Week 1.

“We went up against coach (Randy) Ricedorff at Show Low for quite a while,” Solomon said. “We know he likes to throw the football, but this year, they’ve got a good running game to complement it. We’ve got some matchup issues to really focus on not having exposed this week.”

The 3A bracket, like the 4A, held form in the quarterfinals, with the top four seeds winning. The top half of the draw has No. 1 Yuma Catholic taking on No. 4 Pusch Ridge in the other semifinal.

The top-seeded Shamrocks (9-0) ousted Thatcher 43-20, overcoming four turnovers behind another big night from sophomore quarterback Richard Stallworth, who threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score, and a defense that didn’t allow the Eagles to score after any of the miscues. 

The Lions (8-1) erased an early deficit to knock out Wickenburg, 35-6. Javier Grajeda ran for two touchdowns and Evan Lovett scored twice, including returning the second-half kickoff 60 yards for a touchdown. 

2A | Bracket

Special teams lift St. Johns, Arizona Lutheran to quarterfinal victories

When you’re St. Johns coach Mike Morgan, the state’s all-time winningest coach, you’ve probably preached more than a few times the importance of special teams to your players.

Rarely do you get such a valuable object lesson of the truth of that adage than Friday night. Clinging to a 22-21 lead over Scottsdale Christian after Ben Tobin scored on a two-yard rollout keeper with 1:59 to play, the Redskins sold out to block the PAT.

Senior Nick Patterson and Joseph Bushman flew in off the right end, with Patterson appearing to block the kick and Bushman falling on the loose ball. 

After the ensuing onside kick failed to go 10 yards, the Redskins ran out the clock on Morgan’s 342nd victory. 

St. Johns (6-1), like Chaparral in 6A, entered the playoffs as an underseeded No. 7 going against one of the top contenders in the No. 2 seed. The Redskins will face No. 3 Santa Cruz Valley (7-1), which routed Scottsdale Prep 55-6, in next week’s semifinals.

Hunter Ogle ran for 306 yards and three touchdowns on 18 carries, and Dylan Hukill intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown for the Dust Devils, whose only loss was to 4A top seed Casa Grande.

No. 1 Benson (8-0) advanced after Morenci was forced to forfeit because of COVID-19. The Bobcats will play No. 4 Arizona Lutheran (6-0), which escaped with a 32-30 victory over Parker on a 42-yard field goal by Luke Grippo.

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