Best in the West 2023: Sept. 22 Preview

 A 45-year rivalry, the top thrower in the nation, a perfect record, and more. All that in this edition of Best in the West as teams reach the halfway point of 2023!


Game of the Week: Cactus @ Peoria

The 39th edition of Cactus vs. Peoria hits the gridiron on Friday night in Panther Country. Cactus has won 12 of the last 15 rivalry bouts and the past five in a row but Peoria looks to flip that around this year. This rivalry dates back to Cactus’ opening year in 1978 and includes four postseason meetings, including the 1987 3A DII State Championship Game.

Peoria’s offense is soaring after a 43-7 victory at Sierra Linda last week. The Panther’s lone loss came against ALA – West Foothills but they have scored 33 points or more in their three wins this season. Back for his second year behind center, sophomore quarterback, Dominic Kramer, has showcased his growth behind a 799-yard season featuring 109 passes through four games. But the youngster hasn’t had to lead this offense on his own. Fellow sophomore, Javon Bell, has impressed at running back this year and broke through for all three of the Panther’s offensive TDs last week.

And speaking of scores last week, don’t take your eyes off this Peoria defense that punched their way into the endzone with a 14-yard Nehemiah Ward pick-six. And the Panthers can score in the third phase of the game as well since freshman two-way athlete, Dontay Tyson Jr., found the endzone twice against Sierra Linda courtesy of a punt return and a kickoff return.

The Panthers are full of youth, energy, and talent but now squares up against a hungry Cactus defense. Even though the Cobras sit at 2-2, they’ve put up performances showing the talent that took them to the 5A State Title Game one year ago. Cactus was unable to stop Desert Mountain’s offensive onslaught in a 37-13 loss and it didn’t help that the Cobras were short four of starting five offensive linemen.

The CHS defense still put on a show with junior defensive back, Gabriel Sotelo snagging two interceptions while senior linebacker, Kadin Huisinga, put up a tremendous performance with 16 total tackles, a tackle for loss, and a fumble cause against Desert Mountain. Junior athlete, Nikko Boncore-Montoya continues to impress and leads the team with 387 receiving yards and four TDs while also playing strong defense. And keep an eye on senior linebacker, Raymond Jones, who leads the team with 4 TFL while also earning 31 total tackles.

Second-year head coaches with plenty of experience in this rivalry look forward to this 39th rivalry game. Brian Belles took over for Cactus last year but has been part of the program since 1999 with a couple of one-year stints elsewhere. Jason Golden is at the helm of Peoria but was part of Cactus’ staff for two years and has resided at Peoria since 2014 after a head coaching stint at sister school, R.S. Kellis. Even though the two teams reside in different conferences following Cactus’ promotion to 5A last year, it’s good to see this duo still playing in 2023.


Growing 2A Powers

A pair of 2A Conference contenders meet in Tonopah as St. John Paul II travels west from Avondale to face Tonopah Valley in a battle of 3-1 records.

St. John Paul II only claimed a single win in 2022 and got shut out in six of their ten contests. 2023 looks like a completely different program though. SJPII has routed teams in their past three games since their season-opening loss to Chandler Prep. Nearly all of the Lion’s damage has been done on the ground with three different players rushing for over 200 yards through four games. Senior, Layne Dickens, has made six trips to the endzone on 205 yards, senior Alexander Pineda has earned 4 TDs on just nine carries for 241 yards, and junior Eric Martinez-Pillado has a pair of touchdowns and leads the team with 283 rush yards. In fact, MaxPreps states that only three touchdowns have been thrown by senior quarterback, Hayden Umbdenstock. Actually, he almost has as many interceptions made on defense (two) as completed passes (4/5 for 49 yards).

Be sure to keep an eye on freshman lineman, Patrick Stary, who is listed at 6’0″ and 245 lbs, and has totaled three sacks this season and ten total tackles. Also watch senior three-sport varsity athlete, Dylan Olmos, who leads SJPII with 24 total tackles.

Tonopah Valley went 9-1 last season before getting eliminated in the second round of the 2A State Tournament. Sophomore quarterback, Malachi Wilt has been electric, throwing for 19 touchdowns and a whopping 1,735 yards through just four games, leading the entire nation in pass yards per game according to MaxPreps. Fellow West Valley program, Paradise Honors in Surprise, holds the player with second-most yards per game in the nation with Gage Baker.

Four different receivers have surpassed 200 receiving yards this season, led by senior Dyllon Croff and his 460 yards and six TDs. Croff has also brought energy on defense as well with his team-leading three sacks. Junior athlete, Sir Izzik Sánchez Caldwell, has put up absurd numbers this year with 532 reception yards, a team-leading 213 rush yards, and 98 pass yards, to total 13 touchdowns this season. Junior defensive end, Czareion Williams and senior cornerback, Martin Quinonez, lead The Phoenix with 18 total tackles each.

These two teams have swapped wins every year since St. John Paul II joined the AIA in 2020 and all three games have been decided by 22 points or more.


Building Ahead

In back-to-back seasons, the Buckeye Union Hawks have rattled off a 4-0 start. Standing in the way of just their sixth program 5-0 start since 1923 is a trip to Waddell to battle one of the youngest programs in the state which also scored 60 points last week, the Canyon View Jaguars.

While scoring 60 points in a game is absolutely fantastic, Canyon View’s performance earns them the title of the highest-scoring team in a loss this season in all of Arizona. Regardless, the high-octane Jaguar offense has scored over 40 points in each of the past three games and enters this contest at 2-2.

Senior quarterback, Beau Devens, is averaging over 300 passing yards per game including 518 yards and five touchdown passes in last Friday’s 71-60 loss to Queen Creek. Devens spread the love sending four of his teammates TD passes, but the most reliable Jaguar for Devens has been senior, Jermaine Patterson, who has tallied 461 reception yards and five touchdowns. Defensively, junior linebacker, Nathan Washburn, has led the team with 38 total tackles and a sack this season while senior defensive back, Brendan Suhy, isn’t far behind with 30 total tackles featuring 15 solo tackles.

Buckeye Union’s perfect season thus far has in part been fueled by the heartbeat of their offense, Darius Haskin. The senior receiver has combined for nine touchdowns between his 212 rush yards and 371 reception yards. When you add in his 55 kick return yards, 149 punt return yards, and 40 interception yards, the senior has averaged 207 all-purpose yards per game.

Another standout this season has been their senior defensive playmaker, Ted Scow. The cornerback has hassled offenses all year with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries while leading the team with 25 total tackles. But also keep an eye out for fellow senior, Lasana Keita, who has caused two fumbles and recovered a fumble of his own while also earning a sack and four tackles for loss.

This is the first meeting between Buckeye Union and Canyon View.


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