For the Community
The 4A State Championship will not only feature two rural schools in top-seeded Poston Butte and 2nd-seed Casa Grande, it will pit two teams whose campuses reside in Pinal County.
Up in heaven, my guy Andrew Luberda is nodding his approval with a smile as wide as the county line.
While Poston sits in San Tan Valley, Casa Grande’s proximity from Phoenix makes it a little more unique.
There is the old school (Casa Grande Union High School was founded in 1920), versus the new school (Poston in 2009). In fact, the Broncos hadn’t even won a football state playoff game before last month.
For the 55,000 or so residents of the fast-growing Casa Grande community, the state championship birth isn’t just a big deal…it’s a very big deal.
“It’s the first time since the 1950’s Casa Grande has gone this far,” Casa Grande Mayor Craig McFarland said to the “Zone Read.” “The whole community is excited about it, especially those graduates from Casa Grande Union who suffered through some pretty brutal seasons. I am super excited for the city and for the school. It’s been a great year…I think they felt they had a pretty great program.”
— Jake Barro (@CoachBarro) December 5, 2021
The question “Zone Read” had to ask was – just how many people from CG will be making the 45-mile drive up Interstate 10 for Friday’s 4:00 kickoff?
“The buzz is definitely out there about the game being at Sun Devil Stadium,” McFarland, who has served as the city’s Mayor since 2016, noted. “Casa Grande tends to favor ASU, so there’s a lot of ASU fans in Casa Grande. I know that there are a large amount of people that are planning to go. People are buying tickets.”
Next stop…. pic.twitter.com/vKu2bGFm06
— Jake Barro (@CoachBarro) December 4, 2021
McFarland said any school at any level in a big city playing for a championship presents a special opportunity but “from an overall community standpoint, absolutely…it’s a big deal” for the city named after the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument located across the freeway in nearby Coolidge.
He also applauded head coach Jake Barro and Casa Grande athletic director, CG alum and former NFL safety Randy Robbins, for prioritizing youth football in the community. McFarland’s 10 year-old grandson started playing full contact football in Casa Grande this year.
“They’re starting to build this system,” McFarland said. “That’s really what you need, especially in a smaller community, because you don’t have that many people to pull from. From that perspective, [Barro] has done a phenomenal job.”
Now Casa Grande is hoping for the ultimate payoff under the biggest, brightest Friday night lights yet.
Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Tucson Salpointe is still playing football late in the calendar year.
In related news, water is wet.
No team in southern Arizona, and only a select few in the Valley, can boast the success of the Lancers (11-2) who will face Horizon (11-2) in the 5A State Championship Friday night at Sun Devil Stadium.
The Lancers are headed to Tempe for the 5A State Championship game! The game will be played at 8 PM at Sun Devil Stadium against Horizon High School! #LancerNation #LetsTakeState pic.twitter.com/L0OFyApqu1
— Salpointe Football (@SCLancerNation) December 4, 2021
Sapointe’s pedigree was created by former head coach Dennis Bene, one of the greatest coaches in Arizona high school history, and has continued through the mind of Eric Rogers, who has compiled an 18-3 record since taking over for the now retired Bene two years ago.
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing,” Rogers said to the “Zone Read” when asked what’s been his secret sauce to success. “Obviously, we’ve kept with some of the tradition from Coach Bene and building that. There are some new wrinkles I wanted to do. Some new traditions, some new wrinkles I wanted to do with the kids. There’s an expectation. There’s a high expectation. When you come to Salpointe, it’s not just about football. We are going to push you to be the very best version of yourself at everything you do.”
Rogers’ perspective and trust of the process has made his transition to Salpointe seem effortless. Let’s be honest, few head coaches take over programs and lead their team to the Open Division Playoffs like we saw a year ago with the Lancers. He’s also surrounded himself with like-minded coaches who fit Salpointe’s style both on, and off, the field.
“I’ve got a really good, veteran coaching staff that have coached at the public schools,” Rogers, a graduate of nearby Canyon del Oro High, explained. “For them to be at Salpointe, our traditions and some of the things we do, for them to be able to coach in the championship game, it’s a great, great blessing. I’m so excited for them. They can’t wait.”
While this year’s Salpointe may not feature the big-name stars of the past with Power 5 players like Bijan Robinson, Lathan Ransom, Bruno Fina, and Jonah Miller, this group has established their own identity – as a team.
“We’ve embraced that,” Rogers noted. “I’ve talked all year to the kids about…we’re not going to have a bunch of high statistics. ‘Oh, you’re the best player’ or, ‘You’re the best wide receiver in Tucson.’ No, we are the best football team. That’s what we’ve stressed all year long. It’s not about you the individual, it’s about us, the football team and our program…they’re playing for each other.”
WE GOING TO THE SHIP! 🙏🏼 Blessed https://t.co/XkqSRvQYMD
— Treyson Bourguet (@treysonbourguet) December 4, 2021
He sees a mirror image in the Huskies who have had an incredible season under first-year head coach Andy Litten.
“They don’t necessarily have any superstars either,” Rogers explained. “They just have have a lot of really good football players that play together. They’re very disciplined. They fly to the football on defense. Again, a lot of similarities.”
If you’re looking for intrigue, look no further than Chaparral-Higley 6A State Championship 2.0 Saturday afternoon.
Last year, the Firebirds overcame COVID-19 cancellations and a number of other hurdles, coming back from an early deficit to take out the favored Hawks and win their seventh football state championship.
The returning Highland varsity players believe they’re not only a year older, but a year wiser.
“Last year we learned what it took to get there,” senior quarterback Gage Dayley said to the “Zone Read.” “After the loss last year, I think the team came into the season this year with a championship mentality and expecting ourselves to get back [to the championship].”
— Highland (AZ) Athletics (@athletics_hawks) December 8, 2021
Not only did they get back to the championship, they have an opportunity to win a championship for the talented group of seniors, like running back Max Davis and two-way star Ammon Allen.
“Getting another crack at a championship as a team is a blessing,” Dayley explained. “For it to be against Chaparral again, we’re looking forward to [it]. We’re all just excited for it and will do everything we can to win [the championship].”
At this time a year ago, “Zone Read” was fairly outspoken regarding the AIA’s playoff seeding, especially in the Open Division and a one specific team myself, and many others, felt deserved a bid (hint: rhymes with “flyland”) due to their body of work and the brutal schedule they played.
Although we’d like to see 4A teams like Cactus and ALA-Queen Creek excluded from Open competition due to their enrollment and roster size (Cactus had 41 varsity players this season), AIA Executive Director David Hines and his staff did an incredible job this fall.
The proof is in the pudding when you look at the big-school state championship matchups:
- 4A: #2 Casa Grande vs. #1 Poston Butte
- 5A: #2 Tucson Salpointe vs. #1 Horizon
- 6A: #2 Chaparral vs. #1 Highland
- Open: #5 Saguaro vs. #2 Chandler
2021 has brought not only a sense of normalcy while we continue to work through and, in some cases, around COVD-19 but we have seen some incredible moments both on and off the field.
There is nothing like Arizona high school football and I certainly don’t need to remind each and every one of you who consume this column on a weekly basis.
Happy Holidays and enjoy what’s sure to be an amazing foursome of games to see which teams will be hoisting gold balls when the dust settles.