Zone Read: What We Know, What We Don’t

Arizona Sports News online

It’s Trick or Treat season and while most youngsters (or adults) won’t know what tasty treat awaits until the door opens and the candy hits the bag, “Zone Read,” along AZHS football smart guy Chris Eaton from Gridiron Arizona/, unpack a handful of known truths, as well as a few storylines which still need a little more time to complete their script.

Let’s start with…

What We Know

5A and 6A are top-heavy. (“Zone Read”) – We’re not re-inventing the wheel here.

6A features most of the usual heavyweights at the top (Chandler, Liberty, Hamilton). The second tier (Pinnacle, Basha, Casteel, Centennial) are solid, but each sufffered lopsided losses to the top three as Liberty took out both Pinnacle and Basha, Chandler rolled Casteel, and Hamilton cruised by Centennial 38-14.

In 5A, the top two teams, Notre Dame Prep and Desert Mountain, already played an instant classic two weeks ago and are solid in all three phases. The next three 5A ranked teams reside in the southeast Valley (Campo Verde, ALA Queen Creek, and Higley) all have had nice years but haven’t been battle-tested like the top two.

One team to watch is 3-3 Horizon. The defending 5A State Champions are on a modest two-game win streak and play Campo and ALA QC in the final three weeks of the regular season.

Onward and upward!  (Gridiron Arizona) – The 3A teams that moved up are still contenders at the new 4A level.

In the last round of realignment (January of 2022), only 3 teams were selected to move up from 3A to 4A based on the AIA’s track of past success quantifier.  They represented 3/4 of last year’s 3A final four with ALA-Gilbert North, Snowflake, and Yuma Catholic all shifted into 4A for the first time (Valley Christian was the other semifinalist; so Trojans, you’re probably on the clock).  No one really knew how they would do when moving up and having a schedule and region with new teams.
The answer thus far is quite well, thank you!  They have combined for a record of 13-5 and were all in the top 8 of the initial 4A rankings on Oct. 11.
ALA-Gilbert North (4-2) has only lost to Eastmark (by three) and ALA-Queen Creek (a 5A team).  The Eagles are paced by Adam Damante at quarterback, an NAU commit.  He has 2,107 yards and 24 touchdown passes (with only two INTs).  Junior receiver Brandon Phelps has 804 yards and 10 TDs.  ALAGN hosts top-ranked Arizona College Prep this week.

Snowflake (4-2) has only lost to ALA-Gilbert North and Cactus (a 5A team).  The Lobos are balanced with the passing game of Easton Butler and the running of Jett McCray.  Defensively, Snowflake is allowing just 14 a game.  Cactus managed just one touchdown in a 7-0 defensive slugfest.  The Lobos will travel two hours and 45 minutes to the Valley this Friday to play Apache Junction (4-2).
Yuma Catholic (5-1) has only lost to Verrado (a 5A team).  The Shamrocks feature quarterback Richard Stallworth, who is just 470 yards away from topping Spencer Rattler as the state’s all-time passing leader.  The senior has 10,614 yards for his career.  Sophomore Darryl Coleman is Stallworth’s top receiver with 544 yards and 9 touchdowns.  YC is at Glendale this week and if Stallworth doesn’t set the record this week, he likely will the following week at home, where it will be Senior Night against Northwest Christian.
“Winning 6A games is hard.” (“Zone Read”) – This, first considered a rather non-descript blanket quote, was said to me by a head coach of a 6A program several weeks ago. At the time, it was just part of a long conversation but, as the season has played out, we’ve seen some cannibalizing in the highest division, especially after the AIA’s conference re-alignment grouping 10 strong programs into two regions, the re-loaded Premier and newly minted Northeast Valley.

In this week’s AIA rankings, six of the eight Open Division teams come from those regions, while 6A newcomer Saguaro checks in just off the pace at number nine. 
Add battle-tested Liberty, Centennial, one-loss Corona, a stable of solid teams in O’Connor, Red Mountain, Queen Creek, and Mountain Ridge among others and it’s sure to be a fun ride when the post-season arrives in the coming weeks.

What We Don’t

Who’s the better team: Chandler or Liberty? (“Zone Read”) – Maybe, flip a coin?

History has proven the margin between these two, especially in the Open Division Playoffs, has been razor thin. As we sit here today on the back half of October, no one who follows prep football in this state expects that trend to change.

Both are 6-0. Both have wins over Saguaro. Both have yet to win a game deciced by one score.

Dig a little deeper and the numbers get even more errily similiar.  

The Wolves have outscored their opponents 278-76 (202 points), Liberty’s point differential is 258-48 (210 points). Chandler has thrown three interceptions, Liberty has thrown two. Chandler is averaging just over 45 points per game, Liberty is averaging 43.

Who the #1 team in 5A will be – even if the top two teams win out? (Gridiron Arizona) -Both Desert Mountain and Notre Dame Prep have 5-1 records.  They met head-to-head and Notre Dame defeated the Wolves in a classic triple OT game (20-17).  So, that means NDP should be atop the rankings, right?  Well, not so fast.  This isn’t an NFL tiebreaker scenario, it’s math, and lots of it.

Because they faced each other to start region play, both NDP and DM have the same four opponents remaining and both will be favored in all four.  If they finish with identical 9-1 records, Notre Dame would win the region, but the No. 1 ranking will be determined by the power points, which factor in the strength of the entire schedule.
Desert Mountain currently leads it by a small 0.47 margin (after the Oct. 11 rankings).  If Notre Dame’s five non-region opponents (Chandler, Horizon, McClintock, Ironwood, and Brophy) outperform Desert Mountain’s five (Cactus, Chaparral, Camelback, Mountain View, and Arcadia), then the Saints would overtake Desert Mountain.
Also at play here is a spot in the Open.  Desert Mountain is currently No. 7 (in the Open) and the Saints are No. 9 (just out of the Open).  It’s certainly not farfetched to see both teams make the Open at 9-1.
Will Saguaro make The Open? (“Zone Read”) – Obviously, there is no margin for error as Jason Mohns’ squad already sits at three losses as they make the trip out east to take on the Highland Hawks this week and their stout defense, which has allowed just 47 points in six games (a measly 7.8 per game).
I said on “AZ Audibles” after the Sabercats’ loss to Liberty that they’re still every bit an Open Division team, even if the computers don’t necessarily reflect that.
My partner-in-crime Zach Alvira puts a pretty bow on this debate.

This has been a year of learning, maturing, and improving for #SagU. Sure, there’s skill talent over the field (per usual) but there were a number of key pieces to replace from last year’s Open Division Championship team up front.

Saguaro’s bye last week came at good time considering the Cats’ 6A gauntlet, which also included Bergen Catholic (NJ) to open the year, and Top 10 5A Desert Edge this past week, has been challenging.
It’s safe to assume, barring any key injuries, Saguaro will be rolling into the post-season, regardless of what happens this week against Highland.