Arizona high school football playoffs: Breaking down each of this week’s semifinal matchups

Here is an inside look at this week’s Arizona high school football semifinals. (Photo by Will Edmonds)

Brackets for every class

Open | Bracket

No. 5 Liberty Lions (6-3) at No. 1 Chandler Wolves (8-0)

7 p.m. Saturday at Chandler High School

Last meeting: The Wolves won 44-10 in Week 1 in the first meeting ever between the teams.

About the Lions: Last year’s 6A champions avenged their Week 8 loss to crosstown rival Centennial in dramatic fashion in the quarterfinals, winning 25-24 on Navi Bruzon’s flea-flicker two-point conversion pass to Brock Mast in the final minute. It was the Lions’ first playoff win over the Coyotes in four tries. Mast has thrown for 1,975 yards and 21 touchdowns this season, while sophomores Zaccheus Cooper (431 yards, six TDs) and Zach Wallace (427 yards, five TDs) have split lead back duties. Cooper missed last week’s game with a sprained ankle. Cooper also has a team-high 30 catches for 404 yards. Junior safety Jax Stam has a team-high 92 tackles.

About the Wolves: The four-time defending state champions extended several impressive streaks with their 52-0 quarterfinal win over Desert Edge —34 consecutive victories, 41st in a row over in-state opponents and 16th straight playoff win. The No. 3 team in the SBLive Power 25 has outscored opponents 384-57 this season after posting its third shutout last week. Senior RB Eli Sanders (Boise State) went over 1,000 yards for the season (the seventh consecutive year a Wolves running back has reached that milestone) after gaining 149 yards and scoring three TDs. Quarterback Mikey Keene (Central Florida) maintained his steady play, throwing for 311 yards and two TDs to give him 1,880 yards and 21 TDs with just one interception this season.

No. 6 Salpointe Catholic Lancers (7-0) at No. 2 Hamilton Huskies (7-1)

7 p.m. Saturday at Hamilton High School

Last meeting: The Huskies won 31-14 in Week 7 of the 2010 season, improving their record in the series to 4-1.

About the Lancers: Salpointe Catholic advanced to the semifinals for the second consecutive year by default when Saguaro was forced into COVID-19 quarantine a day before they were to meet. The Lancers also missed two games this year because of quarantine. In the six games they played, they relied on a balanced attack directed by junior QB Treyson Bourguet (Arizona), who’s thrown for 899 yards and 13 TDs, evenly distributing the ball among five receivers with double-digit catches. Senior RB David Cordero has run for 570 yards and two touchdowns. 

About the Huskies: Hamilton bounced back from its Week 8 loss to Chandler with a dominant performance against previously unbeaten Corona del Sol, rolling to a 50-0 quarterfinal victory. With standout junior QB Nicco Marchiol out with a bruised shoulder, the Huskies turned to a bruising running game, with seniors Rodney Clemente (179 yards, three TDs) and Noah Schmidt (147 yards, four TDs) overwhelming the Aztecs. If Marchiol is again ruled out, sophomore Roch Cholowsky (11 of 14, 136 yards, INT) would get the start. The Huskies did get senior CB Zachary Lewis (Nevada) back from injury last week, which provides a big boost to the pass defense.

Photo by Will Edmonds

6A | Bracket

No. 4 Highland Hawks (6-3) at No. 1 Boulder Creek Jaguars (8-1)

7 p.m. Friday at Boulder Creek High School

Last meeting: The Hawks won 49-10 in Week 2 of the 2019 season. They have won both meetings all-time with the Jaguars.

About the Hawks: Many people were surprised when Highland didn’t qualify for the Open tournament, and the Hawks didn’t show any signs of a letdown in a 30-20 quarterfinal victory over Casteel. Senior RB Max Davis went over the century mark for the sixth time this season, gaining 105 yards on 17 carries to increase his season total to 1,360 yards with 20 TDs. Quarterback Gage Dayley had his second career four-touchdown game against Casteel (his first? Last year’s win over Boulder Creek) and has thrown for 1,738 yards and 13 TDs this season. Senior MLB Kam Cullimore leads the team with 91 tackles (six for loss).

About the Jaguars: Boulder Creek ended an eight-game postseason losing streak and earned its first playoff win since 2010 with a 38-22 victory over Shadow Ridge. The Jaguars are in the semifinals for the first time in program history. Senior RB Jacob Cisneros took over the conference rushing lead from Davis with a career-high 271 yards against the Stallions, scoring four touchdowns — three on the ground and a 77-yard catch from Bear Milacek early in the fourth quarter that helped seal the win. Cisneros has run for 1,482 yards and 19 TDs and leads the team with 38 catches for 644 yards and 10 touchdowns. Junior LB Carter Cameron leads the team with 74 tackles (five for loss).

No. 7 Chaparral Firebirds (4-2) at No. 3 Sandra Day O’Connor Eagles (6-3)

7 p.m. Friday at Sandra Day O’Connor High School

Last meeting: The Firebirds won 35-31 in Week 7 of the 2019 season. They have won both meetings all-time.

About the Firebirds: When they missed their first three games because of COVID-19 quarantine and then sat 2-2 entering their finale, the Firebirds’ postseason chances looked grim. A 52-10 win over Pinnacle in Week 8 got them a spot in the bracket, and Chaparral took advantage of its lifeline with a dominant defensive performance against Queen Creek in the quarterfinals. The Bulldogs’ only touchdown came on the opening kickoff — Chaparral’s defense pitched a shutout in the 26-8 victory. The Firebirds forced three turnovers and held Queen Creek to 127 yards of total offense. Senior RB Jared Williams surpassed that total by himself, running for 195 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries.

About the Eagles: From 3-7 a year ago to first-time state semifinalists, it’s been quite the turnaround at Sandra Day O’Connor this fall. The Eagles beat Basha 27-21 in overtime for their first playoff win since 2010. Senior QB Seth Felts, who’s split time with junior Dallas Kuenzi the past few weeks, scored the winning touchdown after the Eagles held Basha on its first overtime possession. Senior RB Donavin Fontaine returned from an injury that cost him most of his junior season and leads the team with 965 yards and seven TDs on 140 carries. Senior WR James Groff has 46 catches for 713 yards and nine TDs. Junior LB Brandon Craddock had a monster game against Basha with 15 tackles (three for loss) to give him 123 (19 for loss) this season.

Picture Lady Photography

5A | Bracket

No. 5 Campo Verde Coyotes (5-2) at No. 1 Sunrise Mountain Mustangs (7-2)

7 p.m. Friday at Sunrise Mountain High School

Last meeting: The Mustangs won 38-24 in the first round of the 2018 5A playoffs in their only previous matchup.

About the Coyotes: Campo Verde emerged from COVID-19 quarantine just in time for the playoffs, beating Maricopa in Week 8 before opening the playoffs with a 38-14 victory at Cactus Shadows. The Coyotes reached the 5A final for the first time in school history last fall despite losing RB Caden Calloway to an ankle injury in the semifinals. He’s hoping to get the chance to play for a title this year, running for a season-high-tying 201 yards and three touchdowns against Cactus Shadows — his fourth career 200-yard game. Younger brother Connor, a junior linebacker, has a team-high five sacks and seven hurries.

About the Mustangs: Sunrise Mountain owns victories over last year’s 6A (Liberty) and 4A (Mesquite) champions and has rebounded from a midseason lull to win its past three games and return to the semifinals for the first time since 2017. The Mustangs were the only higher seed to win in the quarterfinals, notching a second victory over Verrado in a three-week span, 35-14. Senior RB Tommy Arnold, who battled through injuries during that stretch that included back-to-back losses to Ironwood and Desert Edge, ran for 192 yards and three touchdowns in the quarterfinals. He has rushed for 905 yards and 14 TDs this year. Senior LB Owen Thomas has a team-high 81 tackles (17 for loss) and 10 sacks.

No. 7 Notre Dame Prep Saints (5-2) at No. 6 Ironwood Eagles (6-2)

7 p.m. Friday at Ironwood High School

Last meeting: This is the first meeting between the teams.

About the Saints: Yet another team that battled through COVID-19 quarantine this fall, Notre Dame Prep missed two weeks before coming back to win what essentially was an elimination game against Horizon to sneak into the field. The Saints then romped past No. 2 seed Sunnyslope, a team that had been in the Open top-eight in the first two rankings, 42-7 to make a fourth consecutive trip to the semifinals. They seek their first title since winning back-to-back championships in 2007-08. Senior RB Luke Nash ran for 144 yards and three TDs in the victory, providing needed balance for a passing game directed by senior QB Tyler Schweigert (1,113 yards, 14 TDs, 64.7% completions). Junior WR Gavin Smith has 41 catches for 560 yards and seven TDs. 

About the Eagles: With dual-threat QB William Haskell (San Diego State) under center, Ironwood showed last week that it’s never out of any game. The Eagles rallied from a 27-7 deficit over the final 15 minutes to knock off Desert Mountain 35-30 and advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2005. Haskell has thrown for 1,641 yards and 19 TDs and carried the ball 37 times for 443 yards and seven scores. The Eagles are not a one-man gang, though. Senior Elijah Sanders has a team-high 22 catches for 492 yards and seven TDs and has 264 rushing yards with four TDs. Senior TE Bubba Mannino-Faison has seven TD catches among his 21 total for 310 yards.

William Haskell photo courtesy of Ironwood High School

4A | Bracket

No. 4 Cactus Cobras (7-2) at No. 1 Casa Grande Cougars (7-1)

7 p.m. Friday at Casa Grande High School

Last meeting: The Cobras won 28-13 in Week 5 of the 1988 season. They lead the all-time series 8-0.

About the Cobras: Cactus is back in the semifinals for the second consecutive season looking to erase the sting of a one-point defeat to eventual champion Mesquite last year and reach the final for the first time since 2011. The Cobras’ 41-7 quarterfinal victory over Coconino was their sixth win in a row after a 1-2 start. Sophomores Will Galvan and Chase Jasinski, a transfer from Liberty, have shared quarterback duties the past several weeks and have combined for 1,519 yards and 17 touchdowns this season. Another sophomore, RB Damian Jiles, leads the team with 599 rushing yards and five TDs. Three juniors — Ata Teutupe (92 tackles, nine for loss), Justin Holmes (86 tackles, 15 for loss, five sacks) and Chaparral transfer Aki Pulu (59 tackles in five games) — lead the defense.

About the Cougars: This is rarified air for top seed Casa Grande, in the semifinals for the first time a year after earning its first playoff win since 1994. The Cougars rallied from a 30-27 deficit after three quarters to defeat Peoria 47-30 in the quarterfinals. Three juniors — dual-threat QB Angel Flores (2,188 total yards), RB RJ Keeton (840 yards, 18 TDs, 11.5 yards per carry) and WR Demetrius Garrett (25 catches for 564 yards and six TDs) — provide the bulk of the offensive punch, while senior LB Jacob Thomas paces the defense with 83 tackles and 2½ sacks.

No. 3 Mesquite Wildcats (7-1) at No. 2 American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek Patriots (8-1)

7 p.m. Friday at ALA-Queen Creek High School

Last meeting: The Wildcats won 60-42 in Week 3 in the first meeting between the programs.

About the Wildcats: Defending champion Mesquite was in the running for an Open berth or the No. 1 seed in the 4A bracket before having two games erased from its schedule when opponents had to go into COVID-19 quarantine. The Wildcats showed a bit of rust in the first half of their 27-10 quarterfinal win over Northwest Christian — they led just 7-3 at halftime before pulling away late. University of Oregon-bound QB Ty Thompson (2,831 yards, 28 TDs) was 16 of 32 for 348 yards and two touchdowns, adding a third score on the ground. Without standout senior wideout Eric Lira (12 TD catches), classmate Lavontae Trotter had a career night, catching seven passes for 191 yards and a touchdown. Junior Andrew Morris (40-734-9) also caught seven passes for 130 yards and a TD. 

About the Patriots: ALA-Queen Creek won a second 3A title in a four-year stretch last fall before getting moved up to 4A this year. The Patriots haven’t skipped a beat, rebounding from their Week 3 loss to Mesquite by winning six in a row, averaging 49.5 points during the streak. They erased a 14-13 deficit late in the first half to defeat St. Mary’s 40-14 in the quarterfinals. Junior QB Logan Hubler, who threw for 348 yards and three TDs last week, has passed for 2,441 yards and 29 touchdowns this season, with sophomores Drake Cluff (42-548-7) and Ryan Meza (30-622-7) his top targets. Senior RB Trae Moshier has run for 653 yards and 12 TDs. Senior DE Micah Ferrin (73 tackles, 30 for loss, nine sacks) is a leading 4A defensive player of the year candidate.

3A | Bracket

No. 4 Pusch Ridge Lions (8-1) vs. No. 1 Yuma Catholic Shamrocks (9-0)

6 p.m. Saturday at Coronado High School

Last meeting: The Shamrocks won 14-7 in Week 2 to improve their record in the series to 4-1.

About the Lions: Pusch Ridge has shrugged off the memory of back-to-back 5-5 seasons to reach the semifinals for the first time since playing for the 2017 title. The Lions have won seven in a row, scoring at least 31 points in each game and averaging 49.6 points during the streak. Senior RB Evan Lovett is the engine that makes the Lions offense go, rushing for 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns. Two juniors, Ryan Fontaine and Hayden Hallett, have shared quarterback duties most of the season, combining to go 104 of 180 for 1,350 yards and 13 touchdowns, with junior Jayden Rittenbach (30-553-6) their top target. Junior Javier Grajeda has been equally effective as a runner (555 yards, 10 TDs) and receiver (20 catches). Sophomore LB Tyler Mustain has been a force on defense, leading the team with 71 tackles (nine for loss, 5½ sacks). 

About the Shamrocks: Yuma Catholic reached the semifinals six times in the previous decade, including titles in 2011, 2013 and 2014, and reaching the final two years ago. The Shamrocks scored a season-low 14 points in their Week 2 win over Pusch Ridge — they’re averaging 48 points per game, dispatching Thatcher 43-20 in the quarterfinals despite turning the ball over four times. Their underrated defense, which has forced 26 turnovers and allowed 12.8 points per game, gave up zero points off those turnovers. Sophomore QB Richard Stallworth has completed 68 percent of his passes (198 of 291) for 3,545 yards and 44 touchdowns with 10 interceptions. Junior RB Devon Black leads the team in rushing (390 yards, six TDs), and his 34 catches rank second behind junior WR Austin Rush, who has 42 for 837 yards and 14 TDs.

No. 3 ALA-Gilbert North Eagles (8-1) vs. No. 2 Snowflake Lobos (8-1)

1 p.m. Saturday at Coronado High School

Last meeting: The Lobos won 22-20 in Week 1 in the first meeting ever between the teams.

About the Eagles: ALA-Gilbert North is in the semifinals in the program’s third year of existence, ousting last year’s 2A champion, Round Valley, 38-15 in the quarterfinals. The Eagles lost starting quarterback Jack Ricedorff (1,691 yards, 20 TDs) to a season-ending injury on the second possession of their quarterfinal win, but sophomore Adam Damante did well in his stead, going 11 of 18 for 111 yards and a touchdown and running for two scores. ALA-Gilbert North likes to spread the wealth offensively, with Easton Webster (back Nov. 6 from shoulder surgery) and Emeka Ogbonna (Brophy Prep transfer) sharing time with Spencer Nielson in the backfield and six receivers having 15 or more catches, led by junior Johnny Bellino with 33 catches for 605 yards and seven TDs. Nielsen also leads the team with 65 tackles (12 for loss) and three interceptions.

About the Lobos: Snowflake has sandwiched four-game win streaks around its lone defeat in Week 5 to Round Valley. The Lobos outlasted Phoenix Christian 38-21 to reach the semifinals for the 10th time since they won the last of three consecutive titles from 1991-93, hoping to make their first final since 2014. Senior RB Terren Green, who ran for a career-high 163 yards and three touchdowns against the Cougars, has rushed for 662 yards and 11 TDs this season. Junior QB Caden Cantrell has thrown for 1,517 yards and 13 touchdowns, with junior Noah Baum (21-525-6) and senior Mayson McKinlay (20-337-5) his top targets. Green also shares the team lead with senior Rev Brimhall with 88 tackles, while senior Payson Cardon has 16½ tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 19 hurries. Senior Ryson Stuart ranks among the conference leaders with five interceptions.

2A | Bracket

No. 4 Arizona Lutheran Coyotes (6-0) vs. No. 1 Benson Bobcats (8-0)

6 p.m. Saturday at Higley High School

Last meeting: The Bobcats won 44-38 in Week 3 of the 2017 season, but the Coyotes lead the all-time series 3-2.

About the Coyotes: Arizona Lutheran missed nearly a month of the season because of COVID-19 cancellations, but after breezing through its first five games, it needed a 42-yard field goal by Luke Grippo to escape with a 32-30 quarterfinal victory over Parker. The Coyotes are in the semifinals for the first time since 2014. Junior QB Tanner Plitzuweit threw for 132 yards and a touchdown and ran for two short scores, and RB Jacob Holguin ran for 122 yards and a touchdown. Holguin (686 yards, six TDs) and junior Gabriel McKenney (749 yards, 13 TDs) provide a 1-2 punch in the backfield.

About the Bobcats: Benson earned the No. 1 seed after dominating its first seven opponents, outscoring them 242-36 and posting three shutouts. The Bobcats advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 2016 when Morenci had to forfeit because of COVID-19 quarantine. The Bobcats have thrown the ball just 34 times all season, relying instead on a punishing running game led by juniors Devin Bowling (830 yards, 12 touchdowns) and Jace Barney (401 yards, six TDs). Three juniors — Cameron McFarland (39 tackles), Ryan Francione (37 tackles, five sacks) and Jimmy Lerblance (four interceptions) — lead the defensive effort.

No. 7 St. Johns Redskins (6-1) vs. No. 3 Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils (7-1)

1 p.m. Saturday at Higley High School

Last meeting: This is the first meeting between the teams.

About the Redskins: The state’s all-time winningest coach, Mike Morgan, earned his 342nd victory when St. Johns knocked off No. 2 seed Scottsdale Christian 22-21 after the Redskins blocked a potential game-tying extra point with 1:59 left to preserve the victory. Michael Gibson ran for two touchdowns, and senior Ira Tullous’ touchdown run and ensuing two-point conversion put the Redskins ahead 22-15 with nine minutes remaining. St. Johns is in the semifinals for the second time in the past three seasons, seeking its first championship game appearance since winning the last of its eight state titles in 2008.

About the Dust Devils: Santa Cruz Valley’s only loss came in Week 4 to 4A top seed Casa Grande. The Dust Devils have defeated their seven 2A opponents 365-82, including a 55-6 romp over Scottsdale Prep in the quarterfinals to advance to the semifinals for the second consecutive year. Santa Cruz Valley last reached the final in 2017 and hasn’t won a title since 1980. Senior RB/LB Hunter Ogle is a leading contender for conference player of the year, running for a 2A-best 1,666 yards and 20 touchdowns and leading the Dust Devils with 48 tackles (six for loss). Younger brother Wyatt, a junior, has a conference-leading six interceptions and starts at quarterback, throwing for eight touchdowns and running for four. Junior RB Ricardo Alaniz has run for 517 yards and six touchdowns in a backup role.

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