Just like that – spring (football) is upon us.
Within the next week, teams around the state will take the field in hopes of continuing to build, and improve, blueprints for success this fall.
“Zone Read” takes a peek inside a few teams, and storylines, to follow in spring ball.
Fresh Faces at New Places
The AZHS coaching carousel spun a little slower this off-season but three blue blood, power programs have new head coaches hoping to create their own legacy at their new schools.
Chaparral: Doug Nisenson’s permanent arrival in Scottsdale could coincide with the start of spring ball at Chaptown. He’s already looking forward to the much more outdoor-friendly spring conditions in the desert, compared to Colorado after leaving his alma mater, ThunderRidge High. The Firebirds are coming off a 3-7 campaign but three of those setbacks (Desert Mountain, Mountain View, Pinnacle) were by a combined 13 points. Competition, leadership, and accoutability will be themes to follow this spring at Chap.
Desert Vista: The Thunder open the Scooter Molander era in Ahwatukee. Molander, who most recently started up Eastmark and turned them into 3A State Champions in just three years, is hoping to get the Thunder resuscitated after a 2-8 2022. The Thunder has had four head coaches in four years. Roan Martinez is a big-time talent at receiver. The question is, who will be throwing to him after Braxton Thomas (2275 passing yards, 22 touchdowns) transferred out of state. Defensively, safety Rylon Dillard-Allen has a handful of offers, including the University of Arizona. Desert Vista’s schedule is challenging, but manageable.
Saguaro: The Sabercats went big coach hunting in January, landing former Boise State and ASU offensive coordinator Zak Hill to take the reigns from Jason Mohns who helped transform #SagU into one of the elite prep programs in the nation. Hill, who most recently helped ALA-Gilbert North put up video game-type numbers helping lead the Eagles to 2022 4A State Championship. The Quarterback Whisperer will work with Hype Grand, who enrolled in February. Assuming Grand is named the starter, there is plenty of help around him, most notably Jaedon Matthews – who rushed for over 700 yards (7.8 yards per attempt) and 11 touchdowns last fall. 2025 receiver/cornerback Dajon Hilton is primed for a monster season. Junior Trey Morrison is a stud at linebacker.
The Basha Bullseye
Good things come to those who wait. Last December, the waiting ended for Chris McDonald’s Bears who held off Saguaro in the Open Championship to claim the school’s first football state title. They also beat southeast Valley rivals Chandler and Hamilton for the first time in the same season.
The Basha Bears are 2022 Open Division State Champions. pic.twitter.com/XFIg6R4u6y
— Basha Gridiron (@bashagridiron) December 11, 2022
So what do you do for an encore?
Well, despite losing a handful of solid, experienced players – especially along the offensive line, it appears Basha is the team to beat in 2023. It starts with electric quarterback Demond Williams, Jr. The three-year starter, and Ole Miss commit, is poised for a huge senior season. Leading receiver Bryson Dedmon (52 catches, 928 yards, 10 touchdowns) is back. Senior linebacker Jack Bleier had 101 tackles, 10 sacks, and two fumble recoveries in 2022. Four-star athlete Miles Lockhart is another play-making machine.
I think you get the idea.
Liberty has been the recent standard in the West Valley.
After rolling (and I mean ROLLING) through the 2022 regular season, their Open Division run ended with a heart-breaking one-point shootout loss to Saguaro (a team they beat in the regular season) in the semi-finals.
All-everything quarterback Navi Bruzon is back for one run behind center. Before his true breakout junior season (nearly 3500 total yards and 39 total touchdowns), the lefty elevated his leadership among his peers according to Sports360AZ’s Devon Henry. Expect the seasoned Bruzon to have even more freedom in Liberty’s offense this fall. He seems to perform best when the lights are the brightest. He will certainly miss offensive weapon Jaqua Anderson who transferred to Desert Edge.
While Bruzon paces the offense, Keaton Stam is the unquestioned leader of the Lions’ defense. The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder tallied 104 tackles and four sacks last year as a junior. He can change a game from the secondary. Stam has increased his size, strength, and speed every off-season. Expect this spring to be no different.
Head coach Collin Thomas and his staff handled the massive overhaul (losing 32 players from the 2021 roster) last fall. After last season’s 11-1 campaign, they will again get every teams best shot this fall.
The Pinnacle Pioneers were just a few plays away from claiming their first even State Championship, wilting late to Highland in the 6A title game at Sun Devil Stadium.
The bad news: the ‘Neers lose entrenched veterans Duce Robinson, Myles Libman, Eli Paige, Coleson Arends, Jacobie Rucker, Brady Ponce, Luc Baker, and others.
The good news: Pinnacle (for now) has two seasoned, talented quarterbacks in Chandler transfer Dylan Raiola, and junior-to-be Wyatt Horton – who could transfer. Dana Zupke’s offensive skill players will be young, but talented. At receiver, Mac Richards returns. Jace Pina and Josh Pinder will get targets. Speedster Mason Hughes is expected to fill Rucker’s role as the primary ball carrier.
Pinnacle Pioneer Football Spring ball schedule! 🅿️🏈
Updated with Parent Meeting, Showcase location and Fundraiser night
𝙋𝙡𝙖𝙮𝙚𝙧𝙨: 𝙨𝙝𝙖𝙧𝙚 𝙤𝙣 𝙮𝙤𝙪𝙧 𝙨𝙤𝙘𝙞𝙖𝙡𝙨 𝙩𝙤 𝙝𝙚𝙡𝙥 𝙜𝙚𝙩 👀 𝙤𝙣 pic.twitter.com/g5rqfVtsKH
— 🅿️INNACLE FOOTBALL (@GoBigBlue_PHS) April 19, 2023
Zupke believes his defense will be much faster in ’23. Ball hawk Spencer Halvorson (126 tackles, 21 for loss) is back for his senior campaign. Dylan Fricke is also back in the mix after recording 65 stops (six for loss) last year.
Despite the defection of Raiola, talented offensive lineman Andrew Dudley, and a handful of others, Chandler is ready to once again be…well, Chandler.
Offensively, it all starts with senior-to-be star running back Ca’lil Valentine who, at times, was simply unstoppable last season. The 6-foot, 175-pounder scored 18 rushing touchdowns and averaged nearly nine per carry. His 1,347 yards were more than half of the Wolves’ team rushing total (2280). When he’s not carrying it, he’s a serious threat to catch it (22 receptions, 395 yards, four touchdowns). In two varsity seasons, he has close to 2,500 total yards.
2024 Blake Heffron is expected to be CHS’s starting quarterback after serving in a part-time backup capacity last season. An elite athlete, who also starts on Chandler’s baseball team, Heffron earned All-Region honors as a punt returner in 2022.
The defense is anchored by Jeremiah Young who was a menace to opposing offenses last year registering 8.5 sacks.
The schedule features usual suspects Basha, Hamilton, Highland, and Centennial but it would be unexpected to not see Rick Garretson’s squad not back in the Open Division playoffs again this December.
Edge of Greatness?
The Carter twins enter their fourth year, and their first true class, at Desert Edge. The Scorpions went 8-4 in 2022. Those four losses were to Open Division runner up Saguaro, 6A State Champion Highland, 5A State Champion Higley, and 5A State runner up Cactus.
Yep, DE is getting close.
Eight players currently hold Division I offers. Expect that number to increase.
Almost that time! First Quarter of the Season. Here’s a look at the spring ball calendar for the 2K23 Desert Edge Scorpions! #WeAreDE #SNWY #WestsiDE #NoFlinch 🦂🦂🦂@SpiceBoy408 @CaliBloodLine81 @AZcoachHenri @papirican21 pic.twitter.com/ukjTzTKHJe
— Desert Edge Football (@DEdgeFootball) March 27, 2023
Let’s start on defense – a unit that returns a handful of starters, led by Jaylen Dawson who had an even 100 tackles (eight for loss), two sacks, and two interceptions last season as a junior. Veterans Deshawn Warner and Shaun Aletor combined for 13.5 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in ’22.
The focal points of the offense will center around junior-to-be quarterback Hezekiah Millender (3255 total yards, 37 touchdowns in ’22), and electric Kezion Dia-Johnson. Anderson, mentioned above, will contribute to run and receiving game when eligible mid-season.
A Three-Peat Feat?
In far southeast Valley, sits two-time defending 6A State Champion Highland.
Brock Farrel and his staff continue to get it done.
The Hawks have won at least seven games every season dating back to 2017.
The offense this year, at least schematically, won’t look much different than the run-heavy past. Highland has a young, promising quarterback in 6-foot-3, 205-pound Kalen Fisher, and a stable of experienced running backs – most notably Eli Kerby (574 yard, five rushing touchdowns). Productive Kody Cullimore (team-leading 10 rushing touchdowns), and Jay Martin (437 yards/three touchdowns) with both get plenty of work, as well.
The receiver room is led by burner Greg Toler, Jr. 6-foot-4, 230-pound 2025 tight end Hayden Daugherty is poised for a breakout season.
The defense will miss Cooper Scott, but expect even bigger seasons from edge rusher Bertrand Berry II (6.5 sacks in 2022), and Kody’s cousin, Kash Cullimore.