Most Valley high school football teams are experiencing a particular side effect of COVID-19 — veteran players who would almost certainly come back under normal circumstances are not returning because of health concerns or just losing touch with teammates and fading away with no school on campus.
These losses are particularly acute at the 4A level at smaller schools where a player is more likely to start on both sides of the ball, or at least rotate in on both sides.
After two seasons of young rosters and a 3-17 overall record as a result, Deer Valley is still looking forward to a roster brimming with experience. While the Skyhawks are far better off than last year — when the program had only five seniors — there are a few more holes to fill than expected, notably on defense.
“I’m sure (COVID-19) hurt a lot of programs but we’ve lost a few kids because of it. They’ve lost their way and are not motivated to play football,” Friedman said. “We have a good core of seniors, the most since I’ve been here. But we still have a lot of young guys that are going to play.”
Indeed Friedman’s third season looks like a year of opportunity. Now in the Southwest Region, Deer Valley is clear of perennial 4A contenders Cactus, Desert Edge and Peoria.
However, even with a season start date in place and a seven-game schedule set, uncertainty reigns. For example, Phoenix Carl Hayden was on the Skyhawks’ schedule for Oct. 16 but that game is almost certainly off as Phoenix Union High School District plans to play an intra-district schedule starting Oct. 30.
“I still feel that uncertainty. We’ve got to wait until the season actually starts,” senior offensive and defensive lineman Brandon Schwartz said.
While some players dropped off the radar as spring ball, 7-on-7 tourneys and summer camp fell by the wayside, the core of the 2020 Deer Valley team stayed in contact and tried to fill in the gaps in preparation.
Senior quarterback/safety Trenton Green has played half of the last two seasons at quarterback while also filling in at receiver and defensive back. He said having any kind of a senior season would mean the world to this group.
“There was a group chat made for our team where we had a lot of kids get together and train informally. It allowed us to encompass the younger guys that are coming up and form a bond that if it were a normal season, we probably wouldn’t have,” Green said.
Green will start somewhere and could be the rare quarterback at a 4A or larger school to play both ways. He has three years of experience in Friedman’s spread offense.
But the coach also said sophomore Rudy Gonzales is a talented varsity newcomer who figures into the mix at quarterback and safety.
At one point, D.J. Miles looked like the Skyhawks’ quarterback of the future. But an injury last year and some offseason growth may have set the junior on a new path.
“He looks phenomenal for us as a junior playing safety,” Friedman said. “He was a backup quarterback but we might move him out to receiver because he’s so talented and big now.”
Deer Valley players cheerleaders and fans celebrate the Skyhawks' 28-0 victory over Phoenix Thunderbird on Sept. 6, 2019. [Deer Valley Skyhawks Football Twitter]
Another receiver/defensive back had a big summer. Senior Matthew Weed picked up four offers from smaller colleges over the summer and signed with the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, on Aug. 21.
Weed is the team’s third leading returning receiver, and ironically Green is the second. Junior tailback Ashton Hill is Deer Valley’s top returning receiver and rusher, and as a linebacker the third-best returning tackler.
Friedman simply said he wished he had 11 Ashton Hills on his roster. He ran for 695 yards on 148 carries as a sophomore and should see a larger workload this fall.
The coach highlighted sophomore Aaron Manone. The tailback and slotback reminds Friedman of Phillip Bayus from his years coaching at Boulder Creek.
Friedman also mentioned Adrian Onyango as a possibility to get some carries, and said the senior has worked himself into a defensive starter this year, as a linebacker or cornerback.
Linebacker is one of Deer Valley’s biggest talent pools with Hill joining returning starters Jaden Stewart and Jermaine Moore. Stewart may move inside in the 3-4 look, while Moore is just a junior and the team’s top tackler in the middle.
“He’s definitely had to fill a bigger role and he’s living up to the hype,” Green said of Moore.
Uncertainty surrounds Schwartz on both sides of the line though junior center Danny Marquez is a big body in the middle.
Loss of eligibility and academic uncertainty raise question marks beyond those two.
“We won in so many areas last year outside of winning games. Winning games was nice and it was better than two years. We didn’t have kids failing anymore,” Friedman said. “But after the pandemic it’s just gone down the wayside.”
In summer workouts, Skyhawks coaches rotated three groups of nine kids on footwork and weight room sessions.
On Sept. 2 the Arizona Interscholastic Association decided to go forth with the football timeline and targeted an Oct. 2 start of the season. Later that week the 4A conference agreed on a seven-game season so it could have a 16-team playoff bracket, though the eighth week will count as a play-in week and regular season game.
Conversely, 6A and 5A teams will try to play eight games before an eight-team postseason bracket, along with a likely majority of the eight spots for the open division.
However, 4A teams will still be eligible for the open.
“I was a proponent of that,” Friedman said. “I’m just happy we have a schedule. This is good for kids. It is good for these kids to get out and do something. I pray we have some type of season and I’ll take seven games as opposed to no games.”
Also, the 4A Conference will retain automatic playoff bids for region champions. Deer Valley should contend in a Southwest Region without a definitive favorite.
Skyhawk seniors are hoping for a playoff spot, but after a 3-7 record last year, no one in the program is taking a postseason berth for granted.
“That’s what we’re shooting for. But like Trent said we have to play week by week so we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” Schwartz said.
Deer Valley starts its schedule with 5A team Goldwater, the closest thing the Skyhawks have to a rivalry game. Washington is another non-region game as was Carl Hayden.
Friedman’s team squeaked by holdover region foe Lake Havasu (23-22) and handled new region rival Youngker (28-11). Buckeye had the best record, 6-4, of any team in the Southwest in 2019 while Estrella Foothills is similar to Deer Valley with most of a 4-6 team coming back.
“Estrella and Buckeye both have great coaches, with good athletes and run good programs. And I don’t look past Youngker or Lake Havasu. We battled with them for the last two years,” Friedman said. “I don’t think anybody is going to run away with the region.