Zone Read: What A Year

Arizona Sports News online

Just like that…it’s over.

2020 and its adjoining Arizona high school rollercoaster ride of a football season will never be forgotten. 

A turbulent year on and off the field came to a crescendo with a number of nail-biting, down-to-the-wire playoff games and some old-school programs officially marking their return to the AZHS football map.

This week’s “Zone Read” will be a little different than most. It will be mostly my top of mind thoughts as I’ve taken a few days to process the last several months and the obstacles so many have overcome to make the 2020 season even possible.

From the Beginning

From the beginning there was uncertainty. Uncertainty from the AIA. Uncertainly from Governor Doug Ducey. Uncertainty from every player and coach around the state.

Some coaches, off the record, expressed to “Zone Read” their safety concerns and questioned if even trying to square peg, round hole a fall season made any sense in the first place.

While some schools made it through the year unscathed and uninterrupted, others like Tolleson Union, Phoenix Union and the Tucson Unified District felt a much greater impact than most. 

Simply put, it sucks.

It sucks those student-athletes, through no fault of their own, never received the payoff for all their hard work in the off-season. 

The same can be said, in a somewhat different way, for Saguaro who had the beginning and end of their 2020 cut short due to COVID.

Thank You Coaches

Thank you coaches for setting the example and being true leaders on and off the field for your players and the programs you represent.

Over the years “Zone Read” has been fortunate enough to get to know and connect with a number of these great men from all over Arizona. Their personalities and backgrounds may be different, but they’re all about their players and what’s best for them both on and off the field.

While the head coaches get most of the “spotlight,” the assistants and trainers are really the ones who help elevate programs to another level. The time they put in and the commitment they make goes far beyond the stipend they’re paid for their efforts. 

Further, all coaches are often father figures, mentors and – at times – therapists…especially in 2020.

Their loyalty is unwavering and the truly great ones never put themselves above their program.

Seeing Boulder Creek’s Tony Casarella nearly in tears after the Jags last-second loss to Highland two weeks ago or the way Cactus head coach Joseph Ortiz handled his second-consecutive last-second, gut-wretching playoff loss to Mesquite last Friday are two incredible examples of the leadership and dedication which helps make AZHS football so special.

It could be argued no coach made more of a sacrifice in 2020 than Mingus Union’s Doug Provenzano. I see you Coach Pro and know you’re going to get it done in Cottonwood.

“Zone Read” tips our cap to each and every single one of you.

Playoff Magic

Playoff magic was in the air at all levels of the play over the last month.

Each season seems to bring the unique and unexpected but 2A and 3A saw top-seeds beaten, and beaten badly, as Santa Cruz Valley and Snowflake raised gold balls after convincing wins to coincide with a number of other compelling storylines and classic finishes.

In 4A, “Zone Read” saw – up close and personal – Mesquite’s 14-point fourth quarter comeback behind Ty Thompson and Eric Lira’s late-game magic as the Wildcats went back-to-back less than a week before Thompson officially signed with Oregon. 

Something tells me next year Cactus will be one’s celebrating and posing for pictures with the big trophy.

In 5A, Sunrise Mountain capped off an incredible season and atoned for a regular season loss to Ironwood, winning their first football state title. All Steve Decker’s squad did this fall was beat 4A Champion Mesquite and runner-up Cactus, Open Division semi-finalist Liberty and last year’s 5A state runner up Campo Verde.

Everyone slept on Chaparral, including yours truly. Well, the seventh-seeded Firebirds put an exclamation point on their turbulent 2020 outsmarting, out-muscling and simply outplaying Highland to win 6A. Chaptown has that edge back.

Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than great. Fortunately for the Chandler Wolves, they were both on 2020. Five-straight state championships and six overall. Let that settle in for a minute. Rick Garretson still hasn’t lost a game as CHS’s head coach. Liberty and Hamilton pushed the top dog all the way to the brink and when Hamilton’s 27-yard field goal in the closing seconds sailed wide left on a cold and windy night in Ahwatukee the Wolves were once again crowned the top team in Arizona. An unbelievable run for an unbeatable program continues.   

Thank You Class of 2021

Thank you Class of 2021 for being pillars of strength in times of uncertainty. On and off the field you were a major reason why your class was able to have all, or at least most, of your senior season.

Thank you D.J. Gleash for allowing this old family friend to enjoy your incredible senior season at Centennial. You were a flat out play maker and the stats back that up. I can’t wait to watch you play at the next level. 

Thank you Dante Haynesworth for always going out of your way to chat me up at the gym when we ran into each other. I’ve personally witnessed how hard you worked and completely transformed your body for your senior season at Pinnacle. It’s going to pay off when you continue your football career in college.

Thank you Mikey Keene for being the exact same humble, grounded person you were when you and I met almost two years ago long before you became a household name in this state. You went undefeated as the starting quarterback and won two Open Divison State Championships at Chandler but you were always first to compliment your coaches and teammates instead of taking the credit yourself. Go ball out at UCF.

Thank you Jonah Miller for your transparency the last three years and for taking the time, on the record, to explain why you not only left Tucson Salpointe but opted out at Sahuaro this year to focus on your safety and academics before heading to Oregon. 

Thank you Steven Ortiz, Jr. for stepping out of your comfort zone and addressing the violence and racial tension in and around Minneapolis following George Floyd’s death. You are a Desert Edge legend and I know Big Ten wide receivers will have their hands full with you over the next four years.

Thank you Stevie Rocker for opening up about your passion for art and how you coped with the Tucson COVID shutdown this fall.

Thank you Xander Werner for all the “Zone Read” access since you and I met before your sophomore year at Saguaro during summer camp at Cal-Lutheran. You’re versatile and coachable and NAU is going to so happy to have you.

There are so many other names who deserve to be added to this list.

I’m Thankful

I’m thankful I have the opportunity to cover this incredible game.

Happy Holidays.

A Valley native, Eric has had a passion for the Arizona sports scene since an early age. He has covered some of the biggest events including Super Bowls, national championships and the NBA and MLB playoffs in his near 20 years in local media.