Salpointe Catholic did everything it was supposed to do.
The Lancers finished the regular season 9-0, winning their final three games by a combined score of 160-0. This season, they have outscored opponents by a 442-point margin. But that doesn’t do much to calm coach Dennis Bene’s concerns heading into Arizona’s first ever Open Division tournament.
The other seven teams hail from the Phoenix metro. Four, including Salpointe’s first-round opponent Phoenix Pinnacle (8-2), are in Class 6A, the state’s top division, making them intimately familiar with the competition level. The other two, 5A’s Peoria Centennial and 4A’s Scottsdale Saguaro, have losses on their schedules from California powerhouses Mater Dei and Cathedral Catholic. Salpointe’s toughest game, a 35-0 victory, came against Canyon del Oro, which lost in the first round of the 4A state playoffs last week.
“That’s been a challenge, because this whole Open thing happened right in the middle of our two-year scheduling block,” Bene said.
“Moving forward, if you have aspirations of playing among the elite eight, you should schedule accordingly. We didn’t have that opportunity. So here we are.”
Pinnacle’s air attack remains its top weapon. The Pioneers replaced the state’s all-time passing leader Spencer Rattler, now at Oklahoma, with Michigan commit J.D. Johnson. He has thrown for 2,100 yards with 20 touchdowns and four interceptions.
“They’ve a very well-coached team, and they have power-five quarterbacks year in and year out,” Bene said. “Without question they’re the best team we will have faced up to this point. We’re going to have our hands full.”
Turning a corner
Sahuaro’s defense has hit its stride.
Normally, that’s not something that is said after allowing 25 points, but with Glendale’s explosive offense, three turnovers and a 46-25 win reaffirms top-seeded Sahuaro (9-2) as the team to beat in the 4A state tournament.
The Cardinals pushed the semifinal-bound Cougars to the brink in the first round last year, losing 49-48. This year, they had no such luck, as both linebacker Gabe Salinas and cornerback Ahmad Hunter came away interceptions to lead the defensive charge. Sahuaro allowed just 13 points in its final two games of the regular season, wins over Casa Grande and Catalina Foothills.
“Our front-seven kids did a great job of neutralizing what they wanted to do,” coach Scott McKee said. “They still gave up yards, but they were able to get great stops. The turnovers were big.
“The secondary, that’s four college kids back there. All those guys will be playing somewhere at the next level.”
Top-seeded Sahuaro hosts No. 8-seed Yuma Gila Ridge (10-1) in the 4A quarterfinals Friday.
Next guy up
Cienega coach Pat Nugent doesn’t like to rely on clichés, but this week he couldn’t help himself.
The Bobcats (9-2) are playing with house money as they storm into the second round without top rusher Gabe Levy. The 5-foot-11 junior, who had 102 carries in the previous six games, was on the sidelines with an injury as C.J. Flores, who had just nine rush attempts on the season, plowed his way into the end zone to complete a first-round comeback victory, 27-24 over Sunnyslope in the 5A playoffs.
“We’ve been living on house money for a little bit,” Nugent said. “Who would thought we’d win down 10 with six minutes left and nothing going right for us? I hate to say the term next man up, but our kids don’t care. They don’t know who’s better than each other. They just want to play football.”
No. 7-seed Cienega travels to No. 2-seed Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (10-1) Friday.
Sabino’s regular season ended on a dud, a 28-6 loss to Safford at home.
The following week the same programs clashed in the first-round of the 3A tournament in Safford, but this time, a different group of Sabercats showed up in a 30-19 win.
“I had to get a little more intense in practice this week, and the guys responded,” coach Ryan McBrayer said. “Especially our leaders, Diego Armijo, Jayson Petty and A.J. Skaggs, guys are holding people accountable, knowing what is at stake now.”
McBrayer hopes to keep that momentum going into this week’s quarterfinal matchup at No. 2-seed Queen Creek American Leadership Academy. It’s a rematch of the 2016 state championship, which ALA won 31-14. Sabino hasn’t been back to the title game since, losing in the quarterfinals in 2017 and the semifinals last fall.
However, the way his team responded to the initial setback against Safford makes McBrayer hopeful for a deep playoff run.
“We have a better team waiting for us now, but we’re happy to have the opportunity to play another game,” he said. “They reload. They have a lot of kids. They’re big, fast and strong and so they’re definitely a major challenge.”