Best in the West 2023: Showtime

Here is one final check-in with teams across the West Valley before they kickoff their season this Friday night! All of their preparation this offseason is about to come full circle and be on display on the gridiron.


The Cobra Formula

A brick wall of adversity couldn’t stop Cactus from retaining their record stretch over the past few years. After making the 2021 Open Division Playoff, the Cobras lost a massive graduating class and were moved up to the 5A Conference as the smallest public school in the conference. But even that couldn’t stop Cactus from putting the state on notice after making the 5A Conference State Championship game following a 7-3 regular season record.

“I think we learned that our formula can work at the 5A level,” Head Coach, Brian Belles told Best in the West. “We don’t have a ton of depth and are playing with a different stack of cards compared to other top-tier 5A programs. I feel our kids have to work harder and that gives us a sense of toughness and resolve.”

The primary leaders for Cactus includes standout senior linebackers Raymond Jones and Kadin Huisinga after combining for 190 total tackles and 14 tackles for loss. Juniors Aaron Lopez and Nikko Broncore will be vital two-way pieces for the Cobras with Lopez working in the trenches and Broncore looking to improve on 1,207 receiving yards and 9 TDs. And don’t forget about senior, Braiden Lagafuaina, who will not only man the quarterback position but also play defense as a safety.

“On the field, they represent the Cactus tradition with their play. Off the field, they have volunteered their time along with other players at St. Mary’s Food Bank and most recently with Operation Homefront building boxes of school supplies for military families. Servant leadership is a value that is important to us and these young men are learning valuable lessons in helping others.”

Cactus opened 2022 at 2-3 with losses to Desert Mountain, ALA – Queen Creek, and Basha. CHS was possibly on track to finish with their third losing season since the school was founded in 1978. Instead, Cactus swept their region games and defeated Willow Canyon, Horizon, and Notre Dame Prep en route to the state title game. The Cobras had ahold of the 5A Championship lead for a portion of the game but eventually fell to the Higley Knights even with a roster size of 17 fewer players with many athletes playing both sides of the ball.

“We have to play multiple players both ways,” Belles said. “No one else we played last year had to do that to the degree that we did. But we have structured our weekly schedule, practices, and conditioning program to account for this.  The trick is we had to stay healthy.  There were times last year where that reared its ugly head and we struggled but we were able to bounce back and most importantly, we were healthy for our stretch run.”

CHS will add a pair of in-district transfers this season as well with receiver/defensive back, Juju Stubblefield, from Ironwood, and offensive lineman, Antonio Olguin, from Sunrise Mountain. A handful of sophomores will also be expected to step up such as running backs Rob Cordova and Tevin Marrufo, wide receiver Jahvon Clemons, linebacker Jayson Burkhard, lineman Aiden Burkhard, and QB/DB Antonio Casias. Coach Belles also notes sophomore offensive linemen, Adrian Suarez and Chuy Diaz, as players to watch who earned vital snaps last year.

“Our players are tough, our coaches work their tails off to put our kids in the best position to be successful on Friday nights. We were 6-0 in one-score games last season. I don’t think that stat was a fluke. Our kids had grit.”

Cactus begins their season on the road this Friday when they visit the Sunnyslope Vikings.


Building Tradition Through Success

For the first time since 2015, Tonopah Valley earned a postseason appearance. And they dominated. After going 1-7 in 2021, Brett Davis entered as head coach and saw The Phoenix rise to a 9-1 record and made it to the quarterfinals of the 2A Conference State Tournament.

“Practicing right is important,” Coach Davis told Best in the West. “There is a lot more pride in practice and attention to detail. They really bought in and saw what they were practicing translate into the game.”

Coach Davis’ primary goal at Tonopah Valley is to build a tradition. Last year was just the sixth winning record since the program was founded in 2005 and students have to come from miles across the small town of Tonopah just to get to and from practice over summer.

This is a team full of youth, which is spotlighted by sophomore quarterback, Malachi Wilt, who threw for a staggering 1,993 yards and 25 TDs while only throwing 9 interceptions as a freshman. He’ll have veteran pieces around him with seniors, Dyllon Goodall and Ethan McManaman catching the balls. And be sure to keep an eye on junior receiver, Sir-Izzik Caldwell, who racked up 826 reception yards and 10 touchdowns. Coach Davis is also excited to see the productivity of the offensive line with junior, Colton King and senior center, Bernardo Rodriguez.

Anchoring the defense line are senior captains, Charles Goodall and Eric Pico. The duo both grabbed a sack and combined for 74 total tackles.

One of the newcomers Coach Davis is most excited to see hit the gridiron is Thomas Foilefutu. The sophomore walks in listed at 6’0″, 226 lbs with a lot of athleticism. And also keep an eye on sophomore Robert Escarcega at 6′ 2″, 182 lbs. who racked up 72 tackles last year as a freshman.

Tonopah Valley begins their season at home on Friday against Wilcox.


Bearing New Opportunities

After seven years in the 6A Conference, the Trevor G. Browne Bruins have been moved to the 5A Conference. TGB ended 2022 at 5-5, just eight spots out of a playoff position. Now, the Bruins look upon new opportunities and a new route to making their first state tournament appearance since 2009.

Senior quarterback, Andrew Romero, has been pinned as a valuable leader of this program. Romero played five games for the Bruins last year and averaged 47 pass yards per game while also totaling 76 rush yards. He’ll be throwing to another leader of this team, Luis Fierro, who caught 15 passes for 162 yards in 2022. Defensively, the Bruins will lean on senior defensive back, RJ Strickland, and junior defensive lineman, Raevonta Hill. Also keep an eye on junior athlete, Mannie Campos, who rushed, returned, and passed for TGB last year.

“The outside world sees TGB have 2,700+ students but I’m lucky to get 100 kids from freshmen to seniors to come play football,” Head Coach Francisco Rangel told Best in the West. “Our school just has different challenges and it’s a good feeling every week you have a chance to be competitive.

“It was tough looking at our schedules in years past going to programs where they have 80-90 kids dressing for a freshman game and then varsity was equivalent. We don’t get a lot of kids who have prior tackle experience so we start from scratch their freshman year. It’s a rewarding feeling seeing those guys develop from freshman to senior year.”

Coach Rangel is also excited to watch a handful of athletes grow this season such as senior DB Eric Washington, junior defensive back Oswaldo Martinez, junior receiver and kicker Miguel Fierro, junior defensive lineman Javoni Harley, junior WR Carlos Quinonez, junior linebacker Courtney Pennington, and junior offensive lineman Adrian Zarate.

“I feel like as a program we have grown with how we are attacking this off-season,” Coach Rangel said. “Last year, we started 5-0 but finished 5-5. We had multiple All-Region All-State players and that was our result. This year we have more guys who are in a prove-it year and are trying to become established forces. We are pushing them harder than we ever have in the weight room and they never quit they just keep working.”

Trevor G. Browne will take a three-game road trip to start 2023 beginning this Friday against Ironwood followed by Maricopa and McClintock.


Leading the Vipers

A 5-5 season in 2022 squeaked the Verrado Vipers into the 5A Conference State Tournament but fell in the first round to Desert Mountain. Verrado has only missed the postseason once since 2014 and looks to continue that success into 2023.

“Usually in the past, there is always those one or two guys that stand out as far as the ones that everyone follows, but this group is different, Head Coach Dustin Johnson told Best in the West. “There are many variations of leadership and collaboration.”

Coach Johnson points directly at seniors Jhayden Frye and Ryan Willey as two primary voices of the team and active community members. Willey accumulated 52 total tackles and 5.5 sacks as a defensive end last year. Coach Johnson also notes junior quarterback Chase Gieszler as one of the smartest QBs he has coached in his career. And also keep an eye on junior running back, Jack Isidore, as a leader of this team.

“Our strength would be in our skill positions, specifically on offense,” Coach Johnson said. “That begins with Jhayden Frye but the guys behind him are stacked. He is hungry and ready to go. Jordan Hiller, Caden Gingg, and Deriece Brown got a lot of varsity time last year as Sophomores but this year have upped the game to a new level.”

The Vipers also welcome transfers from both in-state and out-of-state to look forward to. Running back, Josh Nascimento, transferred from Texas for his senior season at Verrado as a running back. Senior receiver, Noah Horton, transferred in from Desert Edge and sat all of last season but is eligible to hit the field in 2023. Horton played just three games as a freshman and caught three balls for 83 yards.

“We have a lot of guys that work hard, and someone that stands out as a player that puts everything into this is a transfer from Pennsylvania, junior DB/LB Zach Deresky-Martinez. He is dedicated as they come to becoming the best player he can be.”

The Verrado Vipers kick off their season at home against Desert Mountain this Friday night.


The time has come to prove your talents and display the culmination of your off-season work. Join in on the conversation on Twitter using #FridayNight360AZ and follow @Sports360AZ to keep up with the action from across the state this season!