The first full week of games is here and matchups are quite competitive on paper at several levels with many of the top Division I schools heading out of state while others remain stateside for quality contests among East Valley and southern Arizona schools.
Two defending state champs from the East Valley and southern Arizona enjoyed successful debuts last week -- Ironwood Ridge (D-II champs) and Queen Creek (D-III champs). On Friday (Aug. 30) D-IV champ Seton Catholic opens defense of its title and Saturday (Aug. 31) it's D-I Hamilton's turn in California. Joining the out-of-state march of Arizona schools Friday are Basha in Nevada and Desert Vista and Desert Ridge in California to precede and follow up Hamilton, respectively, on Saturday as part of the Brother in Arms Classic at Cathedral Catholic High.
Here's a brief look at some of the interesting openers (or seconds for some):
FRIDAY AUG. 30
D-I: Basha at Green Valley (Henderson, Nev.) -- Basha's season ended quickly in postseason with a tough draw vs. Desert Vista. The Bears return threats at quarterback (Zach Werlinger) and running back (Rajhan Meriwether) and should give Green Valley all it can handle if last week's showings by Mountain Pointe and Salpointe were an indication of Arizona's prowess vs. Nevada schools. Queen Creek at Highland -- An interesting matchup pitting the D-III champ against D-I Highland. Highland'd strength is its defense and in Queen Creek's opener against Poston Butte, the Bulldogs defense was stellar. A low-scoring game seems in the cards. Queen Creek has a 15-game winning streak on the line. Highland qualified for D-I playoffs last year, losing to Hamilton in the first round. Mesquite at Gilbert -- These schools have much in common. Sister schools in the Gilbert district, new coaches this season and a desire to become playoff qualifiers. Mesquite has dropped to D-II with a sinking enrollment and has brought former Red Mountain coach Jim Jones on to guide the program. Gilbert has tabbed Tim Rutt for his first head coaching assignment after years assisting several East Valley programs. Both made the playoffs fairly recently (2010), but neither wants to make missing postseason a habit in the rough and tumble East Valley.
D-II: Ironwood Ridge at Cienega -- This has become one of the more anticipated matchups in Tucson of late as the schools have battled in the regular season and postseason with some epic battles. Ironwood Ridge took down Liberty High last week in a weather-delayed 42-40 win. debuting nearly an entire new cast of players. The defending D-II champs may have their hands full with Cienega, which returns more experience. Cienega has quarterback Adriell Alvarado, running backs David Sanchez and Christian Nash and defensive lineman Jacob Reed back. Canyon del Oro at Nogales -- Canyon del Oro produced a sub-.500 season last year (4-6) after a postseason appearance and quick exit in 2011. The Dorados were D-III runners-up in 2010 to Saguaro. Still in D-III and trying to rebound they face Nogales, which advanced to the D-III semis last season bowing to Queen Creek in that round. The Apaches graduated prolific players at quarterback, running back and receiver and are making the rise to D-II this year. A 10-3 season may be hard to duplicate unless the retooling is almost seamless.
D-III: Maricopa at Tempe -- Both schools posting winning seasons in 2012 (Tempe's was its first since 2004; Maricopa its first since 2007) and played a tight game to close the season that cinched a playoff berth for Maricopa. Tempe returns many more weapons than Maricopa this time, with quarterback Emanuel Gant and receivers Massiah Smith and Sebastian Watkins leading the way. Add Marcos de Niza transfer Kam'ron Johnson to bolster the gorund game and Tempe can be dangerous with consistent play up front on both sides of the ball.
D-IV: Seton Catholic at Estrella Foothills -- Seton enters with a massive overall on both sides of the ball, that includes two potent quarterbacks and a trio of receivers that wreaked havoc on postseason foes on the way to the D-IV state title. The top returning offensive player is running back Antonio Campanella and the leading defensive players are Niko Villegas and Nick Ciferno. Estrella Foothills posted a 7-4 record last season and lost a tough opening-round game to Empire.
D-V: Tempe Prep at Yuma Catholic -- Both schools were D-V semifinalists with Tempe Prep losing to Morenci and Yuma Catholic falling to nemesis Northwest Christian. Tempe Prep graduated most of its top skill players, but does have a good core of linemen returning. A ground-oriented attack last year, the Knights and coach Tom Brittain are looking to throw more to take the heat off. Yuma Catholic returns a large portion of its skill position players, minus top running back Kody Hazlett, who graduated. Quarterback Jagan Cleary produced big numberts and wil have Donovan Rooks, Andre Cabrelles and Ricky Hampton back as receivers. Leading returner in the ground game is Carter Rodriguez. The Shamrocks, coached by Rhett Stallworth, also have a good chunk of linemen back. They should be in the thick of the D-V title chase.