Zone Read: Keeping the Connections

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The Palouse Posse

Jake Dickert’s staff at Washington State will have a flair of State 48 this upcoming season.

Dickert served as the Cougars’ interim coach the final five games of 2021, taking over for the fired Nick Rolovich, before being named Wazzu’s permanent head coach in late November. His new-look staff has four coaches with strong Arizona ties.

Defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Brian Ward played at Apollo High, and Phoenix College, and coached at Glendale Community College.

Defensive run game coordinator/edges coach A.J. Cooper played at Sunnyslope High, and Glendale Community College.

Wide receivers coach Joel Filani was a standout at Paradise Valley High, and later starred at Texas Tech.

Graduate assistant Sean Brophy played quarterback for Chaparral High, and Glendale Community College.

The County Crossover: Maricopa (West Valley)

After Justin Spears previewed Tucson’s biggest headlines, our statewide spring football tour this week brings us back to Phoenix with a focus on the west Valley. No better person to ask than good friend of the “Zone Read,” Gridiron Arizona and’s, Chris Eaton, who drops knowledge on the 623.

Here’s our conversation from earlier this week.

The Brian Belles era begins at Cactus with the Cobras moving up to 5A and sharing a region with usual playoff heavyweights like Desert Edge and Sunrise Mountain. What Cactus storylines are you following this spring?  “In the past two seasons, Will Galvan has accounted for 55 touchdowns (38 passing). Word is he’ll be moving to wide receiver this season. While that fills a necessary void (the top three pass catchers from last season were seniors), it makes for a change at quarterback.  It looks like the Cobras will be going with soon-to-be junior Braiden Lagafuaina, who threw passes in four games last season, or fellow 2024 signal caller, Danny Avila.  Lagafuaina brings some size (6-2, 175), is a leader, and also athletic (currently playing on the varsity volleyball team).  Galvan was the Arizona Varsity 4A Player of the Year in ’21, but which of the other younger receivers will step up as they get their chance in 2022?”

Speaking of Edge, decorated four-year starting quarterback Adryan Lara is off to Kansas State and now the Carter twins hand the keys to 2025 Hezekiah “Buddha” Millender who they’re very high on. Do you see another double-digit win season coming for Edge, even breaking in a new quarterback?  “Typically, you see teams take a step back when you graduate a D-I quarterback like Lara and replace him with a sophomore.   However, this DE team is still loaded.  Gavin Parks and Vinny Mansfield combined for 123 catches, more than 1,500 yards, and 20 touchdowns last season.  So, Buddha will be gifted with talented receivers.  Add to that, he doesn’t need to simply air it out because running back Christopher Cordero (1,285 rushing yards) returns for his senior year.  As for a double-digit win season it probably depends on where the Scorpions end up in the postseason.  With a slate that includes Highland, Saguaro, and Cactus, I think eight wins looks like the max.  That would put Desert Edge on the bubble of teams that could make The Open [Division].  If Edge gets put in the 5A, I see a run to at least the semifinals and 10 wins.  If it’s The Open, they’d have to reach the final to get to that number, and I’ll say they fall shy of that.”

Centennial is coming off a tough 3-8 2021. What do you see as the biggest storylines to follow with Richard Taylor’s team?  “For starters, Centennial will have a new quarterback as Austin Glimpse has left for Sunrise Mountain.  But, it’s always been the ground game the Coyotes have been known for.  They return Kavaughn Clark (623 yards, 7 touchdowns), who shared carries last year.  Could Clark be a workhorse back like we’ve seen from some of the past players in the program?  Also, the Big Beauties up front will need to return to form.  Yes, the schedule was tougher, but we don’t usually see Centennial average 155 rushing yards per game.  On defense, interior lineman Dylan Jett Roberts (6-3, 285) will be a star and someone offenses that want to run the ball will have to account for.”

Do you see Mountain Ridge improving on their 8-4 2 2021 season with quarterback Brendan Anderson (over 3000 passing yards, 39 TD’s in ’21), wide receiver Terrance Hall (80/1243/18), and key pieces back on defense?  “Mountain Ridge will be exciting to watch on Friday nights with Anderson and Hall back.  Hall took advantage of the departure of Deric English (transfer to Saguaro) last season, worked hard, and had himself a huge season.  The schedule got tougher as the Mountain Lions’ region now includes Centennial and Liberty.  In addition, Hamilton takes a trip to Glendale in Week 3.  It’s possible this could be a better MRHS team that isn’t reflected in the final record.  But in the end, the competition during the season will pay dividends come playoff time as the Lions (who knocked off Mountain View in the playoffs last year) will fear no one.”

Is there one west Valley team you see having a breakthrough season in 2022?  “In 13 years, Youngker, way out in Buckeye, has had just one winning season (2017).  The Roughriders return their quarterback, Jacob Lira, who had 19 TD passes in 8 games last year.  YHS also brings back its top running back, Sami Agbeshi (5.4 yards/carry), and top two wide receivers (Evan Aguirre and Caleb Stevens).  What’s different is the new guy in charge – Josh Sekoch.  The longtime Valley Vista head coach should be energized after a summer off in 2021 before helping out at Peoria.  It’s a challenge, but it’s a growing area.  It’s also a region (Estrella Foothills, Moon Valley, Sierra Linda, and Thunderbird) that Youngker should be able to compete in.”

One to Watch

Austin Johnston may not be the most recognized name, or decorated high school wide receiver in the loaded southeast Valley, but his production in Scooter Molander’s offense last fall was hard to ignore.

The 6-foot, 180-pound Eastmark High junior caught 63 passes for 1186 yards, and 15 touchdowns in 11 games for the 7-4 Firebirds who finished a perfect 4-0 in the 3A Central Region.

“He has great speed,” Molander said to the “Zone Read.” “He set our school record in the 40 (yard dash) at 4.50. He runs great routes and cuts. He has a great defensive understanding, as well. He competes at everything and is a fine blocker at wide receiver.”

Johnston is a perfect blend of smarts (he holds a 4.2 GPA), speed (see above), and family genes for the position. Austin’s father, Mike Johnston, played wide receiver at BYU from 1991-95.

If Eastmark is playing a game, you’ll likely find number 11 on the field. Besides being a standout wide receiver, he also tallied 36 tackles, six pass deflections, and three interceptions at cornerback, as well as competing on a number of special teams.

This spring he’s stepping up in a different way in preparing for his senior season.

“He is so well-respected by players, coaches, and teachers,” Molander explained. “His leadership will be a key factor to our success this season.”

College coaches take note.

Johnston certainly checks all the boxes.