Arizona high school football will take a new step Friday, Nov. 15 and three local schools will be a part of history.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association approved in January a new open division that would use computer rankings to determine the top eight 4A through 6A schools. Those teams will play in their own tournament rather than their assigned conferences.
No. 3 Saguaro, No. 6 Horizon and No. 8 Chaparral high schools will embark on the inaugural playoff structure. They will join No. 1 Chandler, No. 2 Centennial, No. 4 Salpointe Catholic, No. 5 Pinnacle and No. 7 Hamilton high schools.
The open division playoffs begin Nov. 15 and will run each weekend, culminating with the finals on Dec. 7 at Sun Devil Stadium.
This runs concurrently with the conference playoffs, which will wrap up the same weekend. Notre Dame Preparatory is competing in the 5A playoffs as a No. 2 seed.
Injuries were a constant theme for Chaparral early in the season, contributing in part to a 2-2 start. As players recovered and banded together, the Firebirds rattled off six straight wins to secure the last spot in the new playoffs.
Of those injuries, both quarterback and Ohio State commit Jack Miller as well as receiver and California commit Tommy Christakos missed several games.
Despite those injuries, the Firebirds still went on a run, upsetting fellow open division competitor Pinnacle in the process. The two losses came at the hands of open division participants Saguaro and Hamilton.
Chaparral coach Brent Barnes said after the season-opener Hamilton loss, the Firebirds started gaining confidence, especially the players filling in roles. He said he saw a spark during the week 4 Saguaro loss that ignited the winning streak.
“We got better each week, I felt like,” he said. “We’re winning games and playing with confidence and those last couple of wins were huge for us. It was something that we saw was building but we were able to put it all together and play well.”
Chaparral --- which scores an average of 40.1 points per game and allows an average of 24.3 points per game --- will need all it can muster as it stares down the best team in the state in Chandler.
The Wolves have won three consecutive 6A state titles and won four state championships in the past five years.
This year’s undefeated team comes in with a national ranking of No. 14, according to maxpreps.com. The Wolves average 53.1 points per game on offense and have allowed an average of 12.5 points per game with five shutouts.
Coach Barnes said he knows what Chandler is capable of but thinks his players learned they can play competitively against tough teams.
“They [Chandler] don’t have any weaknesses,” he said. “So we understand the challenge but we also feel like we have good players too. We have a really good team. If we play together and execute and take care of the things we can control, then we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
Coming into the season, there wasn’t a lot of faith surrounding Horizon. Preseason rankings had the Huskies toward the bottom of the top 10 in 5A.
Flash forward to the end of the season and Horizon is one of two teams to advance out of 5A to the open division. The motto Horizon coach Ty Wisdom and his team have internalized is it isn’t about who the Huskies play but how they play.
“Our success has been due to our outstanding senior leadership, they bought in to our program’s culture,” Coach Wisdom said.
“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you have a bunch of selfless individuals that just come to practice every day ready to work and continue to improve.”
One player who’s been key to the Huskies offense, which scored an average of 47.6 points per game, is quarterback Jake Martinelli. Horizon will enter the playoffs without Martinelli, who suffered a season-ending injury in late October.
In his stead has emerged senior Canyon Funk, who started the last two games of the season. While Coach Wisdom said there is no replacing Martinelli, the coaching staff will play to Funk’s strengths and put him in situations to continue improving each game.
The Huskies’ only matchup with a fellow open division team was against Pinnacle, which they lost 63-46 for their lone defeat in 2019. Horizon also played a double overtime thriller against Notre Dame Prep, which was competing for a spot in the open division all season.
Defensively, the Huskies allow an average of 15.3 points per game and have posted two shutouts. Horizon will put their strength to the test against Saguaro, winners of six consecutive 4A state championships and 11 state titles since 2006.
“We have played some of the top teams in the state on our schedule this year and our guys have answered the bell each time,” Coach Wisdom said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Coach [Jason] Mohns and the program that he has over at Saguaro, we know what kind of challenge they bring.”
A common complaint lobbed against Saguaro is it should be playing up since it runs roughshod over 4A. This year is different as the Sabercats will have to work harder to earn their seventh consecutive state title.
This is a challenge Saguaro coach Jason Mohns embraces. In fact, he believes the open division was created in part because of Saguaro’s past success.
“Our team is excited about the challenge,” he said. “They’re confident. They’re working hard and they believe they have the ability to win the whole thing. We’re not just happy to be here. We’re trying to make a run.”
Coach Mohns said Saguaro is no stranger to top teams. Along with its win over Chaparral, the Sabercats played against
Cathedral Catholic High School in San Diego, the No. 11 team in California, ultimately losing that contest for its lone loss of 2019.
What makes this playoffs unique to Saguaro is it will have to go against top tier teams it usually faces earlier in the year in order to win the state title.
The Sabercats won’t prepare any differently, Coach Mohns said, but the outlook is different.
Typically, Saguaro hasn’t had much issue with its early round games in 4A and teams that can challenge them appear in the semifinals or finals. This year, Saguaro will face tough teams immediately, forcing the Sabercats to be ready for their competition.
Coach Mohns said he was asked if he was looking ahead to Hamilton or Centennial. His response was if they looked past Horizon, than the Huskies could pull the upset, adding each team in the open division deserves respect because each one is capable of a run.
Offensively, the Sabercats average 50.2 points per game while the defense is allowing an average of 7.8 points per game. They’ve also posted four shutouts.
Coach Mohns said what adds to his confidence is past experience from the players from high caliber opponents in past years to winning state titles. Those players who have played at the school for multiple years haven’t had a year in which Saguaro didn’t win a state championship.
“We’ve seen what a top caliber, top tier, physical, well-coached football team looks like,” he said. “We’ve lined up against it. We’ve shown ourselves what things you need to do to beat teams like that.”