The Northwest Christian football program has not had a losing season since the 2006-07 campaign in which the team went 3-6, back when the school was in the 2A Conference for football.
With this amount of success, Northwest Christian became known as a powerhouse among the small schools over the last decade. When the school was placed in the 4A Conference prior to the start of the 2020 season, there was no question that the program would carry on its path of continued success.
The Crusaders rose to the occasion, earning the sixth seed in 4A and pushing eventual champion Gilbert Mesquite for most of the quarterfinal before the Wildcats pulled away late.
“We’re taking it as a challenge because we’re going to get closer as a team, that’s the deal. It doesn’t bother us,” Coach Dave Inness said.
Since 2006 the program has gone a combined 141-31 according to MaxPreps and AZPreps365, making an appearance in five state championship games across that span, winning three of them (2010, 2015, 2018).
Inness, now entering his 12th year as head coach, led all of those state title game. He did express concerns over the realignment, citing the difference in enrollment, with Northwest Christian playing schools like Peoria, Greenway, and Gila Ridge, all with over 1,400 students each.
Meanwhile, Northwest Christian has less than 500 students in grades 9-12.
The main worry is not whether the team will be able to remain competitive with the big schools. Rather it is how the football program will be able to deal with injuries that arise when playing against bigger schools.
“I finished the season with five linemen, I lost seven linemen for the year last year,” Inness said, “And that’s just because of the wear and tear and the size difference. Competition is great, we’re not afraid of it, but that’s (enrollment) a huge difference.”
Despite the injuries, the Crusaders, led by twenty-seven seniors, enjoyed success in their first season in the 4A Conference. The team won five of its seven games last year and came up just short in a heartbreaking 20-19 loss at the hands of the Cactus Cobras for the 4A West Valley Region title.
“We lost on the last play of the game but that was on us,” Inness said, “They’re a great team but we did some things that we don’t normally do. We made mistakes, we didn’t stay inbounds, missed a couple blocks.”
This year, Inness will be relying on just 10 seniors to lead the program. Several seniors, including Luke Johnson (OG/MLB), Alex Jeffries (SS/MLB), and Grant Gibson (RB/CB) feel that this is their opportunity to prove they can hang around with the bigger schools in the state.
“We want to show that we can play with the big dogs. We want to win our region, make playoffs, and make a run for that ring,” Johnson said.
Gibson is back after missing last season with an injury and should be the primary ballcarrier.
Northwest Christian lost one prominent senior when Blake Sparks, last year's starting quarterback, transferred to Millennium. Junior Judah Huisman steps into the role after starting one game last year.
The Crusaders have an extremely tough schedule in 2021 with the team starting on the road for the first three weeks of the season. And even though they are up in 4A, the program is renewing its rivalry with 3A Yuma Catholic on Oct. 1.
Should a team underestimate the Crusaders due to the size of the school, the playmakers of the team will be sure to remind them that small schools can play too.
“We train super hard to prepare for these games, we don’t see ourselves as the underdogs,” Jeffries said, “we see that we can compete with them. We don’t see ourselves below them, we can play with anybody.”
Northwest Christian begins their season at Lee Williams High School on September 3. The Crusaders are scheduled to host ALA-Queen Creek for their home opener on Sept. 24. Both games kick off at 7 p.m.
Grant Gibson chimed in. “They think of us as like the small guys, we have a small school, but we’re just as ready to play as you guys (4A teams) are.”