10 burning Arizona high school football questions entering the big-school semifinals
Expect the unexpected in the biggest weekend of the Arizona high school football season before we head to championship week.
It's getting close to the end. Only 16 schools are left to play football games. We're here for the Open Division and the 6A, 5A and 4A conference semifinals this weekend. And questions abound. Here are 10 burning questions as we get ready for the final two weeks of the Arizona high school football season.
1. Will this be Jason Mohns' last ride as Saguaro's football coach?
This question can't be avoided now that Kenny Dillingham has become the new head football coach at Arizona State. Mohns is close to Dillingham, who once coached with Mohns on the youth program, the Argonauts, that feeds Saguaro players. Time will tell. Mohns is one of the best, most energetic, charismatic high school coaches in the country. I'd be shocked if Dillingham hasn't already reached out to Mohns to get him to join his staff. Mohns would win the room with local elite-level recruits, and any recruit in the country, for that matter. But Mohns' immediate focus is on how to crack through top-ranked Peoria Liberty in Saturday's Open semifinal at Glendale Mountain Ridge and try to repeat as state champs with the school's 4A enrollment numbers.
2. How likely will the Open semifinals be revenge games?
It can happen. Saguaro quarterback Devon Dampier loves pressure-packed games. Remember what he did last year to lead Saguaro to the Open championship, going through Hamilton and Chandler on back-to-back weeks. And he's already had a game against Liberty this year, a nine-point loss in which the key was Liberty going on long drives to keep the ball out of Dampier's hands. As for Chandler avenging the 14-7 loss to Basha, the Wolves' defense is up to the task. But will running back Ca'lil Valentine be up for this challenge, after missing the last three weeks with an ankle injury? Expect Valentine to be back and on a mission.
3. Are No. 1 Casteel, No. 2 Highland on collision course to meet in 6A final?
Yes, that wouldn't be a surprise, but it won't be easy to get there. Mesa Red Mountain faces Highland in one semifinal, and in the Lions' last loss, 17-14 against Highland, they were without quarterback Carter Crispin and running back Lenox Lawson. To win, they need their Big 3 of wide receiver Ja'Kobi Lane, Crispin and Lawson to come up big to pull the upset. Casteel's three losses were to three Open teams — Chandler, Basha and Hamilton. But it has yet to play Pinnacle, which can be a matchup problem for the Colts with 6-6 receiver Duce Robinson.
4. What is the best 5A semifinal?
No. 3 Gilbert Higley at No. 2 Scottsdale Desert Mountain. Great offense (Higley) against great defense (Desert Mountain). What gives? Desert Mountain coach Conrad Hamilton is a defensive genius, but he may not be able to devise a game plan to stop sophomore QB Jamar Malone II, RB Dax Hall and his explosive wide receivers, Dom Esposito and Carter Hancock.
5. Who is the most underrated player among all the semifinal teams?
Lake Havasu senior running back Isaac Stopke might be at the top. He shouldn't be. But not a lot of people in the Valley have seen him play. He's a bulldozer, downhill runner who ran for more than 300 yards against both Poston Butte and Yuma Catholic and a total of nine touchdowns in the first two rounds of the 4A playoffs. It is top-seeded American Leadership Gilbert North's turn to try to tackle him.
6. Can Cactus get to its 10th state championship game?
Yes, but it will take another herculean effort from one of its smallest players, senior Will Galvan. Some questioned new head coach Brian Belles' decision to move Galvan from QB to wide receiver this year. But it's starting to pay off now. Galvan ran for more than 200 yards and caught two TD passes in last week's 5A quarterfinal win over Horizon. But Notre Dame's defense is much better, so it will take another great game from Galvan and a lot more from his supporting cast to pull out the upset.
7. Among all the final four teams, which school has the most state final appearances?
Saguaro with 15. The Sabercats can make it 16 with a win over Liberty. But a win by Snowflake over Oro Valley Canyon del Oro will give the Lobos their 15th state championship appearance and first-ever in the big-school ranks in their first season in 4A after winning the last two 3A championships. Only Lakeside Blue Ridge (25) and Pima (19) have more state championship game appearances in Arizona high school football history.
8. How predictable was the Open final four?
Very predictable. Look at the final four teams: Saguaro, Liberty, Chandler and Basha. The only one I didn't predict right in the preseason was Liberty, which I had ranked at No. 5 in the Open, one spot behind Hamilton. Liberty has proven so far to be the best among the last four standing.
9. Who can pull the biggest upset?
Lake Havasu is a 13 seed playing at No. 1 ALA Gilbert North in 4A. They've not seen each other this year. And Lake Havasu loves being on the road. They won road games in the first two games. They have a running back who can eat clock and keep the dynamic duo of QB Adam Damante and WR Brandon Phelps off the field. And they have nothing to lose. having not reached the state final since 1974, the only time Lake Havasu played for the championship. The Knights lost to since-closed Phoenix Gerard in the Class A championship game that year.
10. Which Open semifinal team has never reached the state final?
Basha. The Bears, the second seed that ran through Hamilton and Chandler, have a chance to make history with a win over Chandler. It might even feel like an upset if they do. They're still one of the youngest teams left with junior QB Demond Williams Jr., knowing how to use his feet to escape Chandler's big-time pressure.