Zone Read: Let the Playoffs Begin

Arizona Sports News online

Friar’s Club

Head coaches tend to trust their instincts.

For Marcos de Niza’s Anthony Figueroa, long before the Padres took the field for their 2022 season opener against Vista Grande, he could sense something special was developing at the Tempe school.

“I [knew] what they were made of throughout the off-season,” Figueroa said to the “Zone Read” earlier this week. “You could see the bonds just get tighter and tighter with these guys. We, as a staff, definitely had an idea this was going to be a special group just by their commitment.”

MDN’s work, when no one outside of the program was watching, transformed into a 9-1 regular season, including a 4A Desert Sky Region title and perfect 4-0 record.

The formula, according to Figueroa, is pretty simple.

“They’re a bunch of guys who play for each other,” he explained. “They do everything in their power to make sure they’re doing what’s best for the team. The team comes first for these guys. They’re a highly accountable group that wants the best for each other. They’re going to play to a standard that they expect to play by. Everything has fallen into place.”

The defense has been outstanding, allowing less than 13 points per game. Senior linebacker Xavier Bueno has a team-leading 86 tackles, Michael Turner leads all Padres in sacks with six. Free safety Paul Garcia has four interceptions, while Garcia is second with three. MDN’s top five tacklers are seniors.

Offensively, junior quarterback Braesen Leon took the keys to the offense in 2021 as an underclassmen and hasn’t looked back.

“He’s definitely a guy who’s under the radar,” Figueroa noted of his signal-caller who has already accounted for over 2,300 total yards and 35 combined touchdowns. “Braeson is a great young talent. He’s a smart football player and he’s obviously continuing to develop in roles you’d ask a quarterback to develop. At the end of the day, the guys just want to win for him, and I think that’s the most important factor for him.”

Leon’s top target, senior wide receiver Jamaal Young, has been nearly unstoppable. The 5-foot-10, 170-pound burner leads the Padres in catches (51), receiving yards (952), and touchdown receptions (14).

“Jamaal is a guy that’s extremely dynamic, he’s explosive,” Coach Fig said. “He has great work ethic. We have to pull him from the weight room before games because his version of ‘getting his mind right’ is getting some extra sets in.”

Their winning record this fall was the first since 2016. Last season, Marcos finished 4-6. This year they’re a 3-seed and hosting a playoff game Friday against Thunderbird.

Momentum for the program has been building and the vibe around campus has a much different feel than a year ago.

“Everyone is super excited,” Figueroa said. “Everyone is super proud of us and the accomplishments we’ve had this far. The guys are excited but they have to understand, we have a job to do. We can celebrate on Friday if we’ve earned it, and move on.”

Back in the News

Just when you thought the transfer smoke had cleared here in mid-November, news hit of an AIA committee meeting this week to discuss this slippery slope of players deciding they want out of their current program and school, regardless of where it is in the Valley.

The potential proposal would allow student-athletes to play the first part of the season, but would be forced to sit out the back half, as well as the playoffs after transferring. It’s a model which is currently being used in other states.

In the current set up, in-state transfers must sit the first five games of the regular season before being eligible to participate for the rest of the campaign, however long, or many games, that is.

Another option being discussed would allow players to play in 70% of the regular season, but be forced to sit out the remaining games, including the playoffs.

This is a slippery slope for a number of different reasons.

Will this stop coaches from recruiting players? Probably not.

Will this stop players, specifically underclassmen, from jumping to another program? Unlikely. 

The blue blood programs attract players at all levels of high school, including freshmen and sophomores looking for a better opportunity, higher quality of education, or any other number of reasons why they decide to transfer. To me, this rule would really only impact soon-to-be seniors who would have instant eligibility, but miss out on the most important stretch of the season and, possibly, the playoffs in their final year of high school.

Several transfers I’ve spoken to really aren’t deterred by sitting out games because they feel, a bigger, better opportunity at a power program goes well beyond the Friday night lights. It’s better practice competition/exposure in the summer 7-on-7’s, better coaching, better weight rooms, better athletic trainers, even better fields to play on.

As coaches, if you build a program the right way in a facets (chemistry, accountability, academics, opportunities to play beyond high school), you’re probably less apt to see your best players leave.  In short, don’t miss the forest for the trees.

Being a high-level head coach in Arizona goes well beyond X’s and O’s. It’s about all the details: helping players get exposure, connecting youth football in the area, and checking all the other boxes to keep pace with the ever-evolving landscape.

I’m glad this is not my headache.

Open, Discussion

The AIA’s unveiling of the Open Division Playoffs in 2019 was a unique, creative way to achieve post-season competitive balance.

Okay fine, it was created to keep Chandler, Centennial, and Saguaro from dominating their conferences every year.

The sole intended purpose was to crown one true champion.

Well, that dream eventually became reality but the past few years there has been some debating come Selection Saturday.

“Zone Read” understands why Hamilton, despite beating Chandler two days before the brackets were released, feels slighted being the Open Division four-seed, while the Wolves are a three. But those two blue bloods won’t flinch in their first round games. They’re battle-tested and well aware of what it takes to hoist the ultimate gold ball next month.

They’re Open Division-level teams.

ALA Queen Creek (9-1) wasn’t seriously tested in wrapping up their undefeated 5A San Tan Region play with a 45-19 thumping of second-place Horizon to close out the regular season. The Patriots’ offense is dangerous and explosive, having scored at least 40 points in each of their nine wins this fall. The problem is, in their lone loss to 6A neighbor Queen Creek, they were held to just 17 in a 10-point road loss. Certainly no shame in that, but the challenge is extremely steep against Premiere Region Champion Basha on November 25th. Coincidentally, this is ALA-QC’s second-consecutive Open Division showdown against the best in the Premiere, having played Hamilton in last year’s Open Division opening round. 

On the other hand, Highland was (again) left out of The Open, despite, as they’ve shown the last two seasons, having more than a strong enough resume to compete against the top half of Arizona’s best teams – winning 6A last year and falling to Chaparral in the title game in 2020. Take away the Hawks’ early out-of-state loss to Lone Peak (UT), their two other setbacks were to Hamilton (by two points) and Saguaro.

ALA-QC is better suited – and would likely prefer to play in the 5A post-season – while Highland, a team who knows how to win in November and December, would push Basha because, well, defense travels.  

With all the usual suspects (Saguaro, Tucson Salpointe, Centennial) now all competing in 6A, is there really a need for The Open?

That’s a debate for another day…and column.