A 5-5 team that barely got into the 6A state football playoffs as a No. 15 seed suddenly became the focus.
As soon as Avondale Westview finished off No. 2-seed Mesa Desert Ridge with a shocking 23-7 victory in the first round last year, coach Nick Gehrts’ phone was lighting up.
Not just from coaching peers congratulating him. But from media all over the Valley, wanting him for stories. Social media was all over the west-side team that accomplished the improbable.
“I think when you have an upset like that and get that big of a high, it’s hard to come back down to reality and get focused at the task at hand,” Gehrts said. “But, yeah, it was good for our kids, and the coaches and the school.”
It was short-lived.
The next week, Westview’s Cinderella run ended in a 31-7 quarterfinal loss to Mesa Red Mountain.
And, as usual, Chandler ended up winning it all, the Wolves’ second state title in a row and third in four seasons.
In 5A, it was Peoria Centennial capturing its third title in four years.
And in 4A, Scottsdale Saguaro’s “drive to five” motto was completed in Tucson at Arizona Stadium with a win over hometown favorite Salpointe Catholic, giving the Sabercats a state-record five gold balls in a row.
What has happened to Cinderella in Arizona high school football?
Chandler, Centennial and Saguaro have set themselves apart from the rest of Arizona in high school football
Richard Obert, azcentral sports
As soon as the last gold ball was given by the Arizona Interscholastic Association on Dec. 2, everybody knew who the favorites would be in 2018: Chandler (6A), Centennial (5A) and Saguaro (4A).
“One of the things we’ve talked about during the reclassification process is, ‘What does everyone want?”’ AIA Executive Director David Hines said. “What they want is that they don’t want to know who is going to win the state championships before the season starts.”
Hines would like to see more parity, a sense of mystery during the season, a better chance for someone new.
“That’s what creates events and gets people to come to games,” he said. “I think if you have that, then you have more interest.”
A couple of years ago, Gilbert Williams Field beat Centennial for the 5A title. That was Williams Fields’ first state title. But it wasn’t a shock. Williams Field has been among the state’s elite teams at whatever level it played at since it began playing varsity football 10 years ago.
Maybe the last big Cinderella story that swept through Arizona high school football came in 2009, when Mesa went 6-4 in the regular season, before beating two teams – Mesa Red Mountain and Phoenix Brophy Prep – it had lost to earlier in the year. The Jackrabbits, built on a deep, passionate culture of family, togetherness, then handed Phoenix Mountain Pointe its only loss in the semifinals.
“They were extremely selfless,” said now-Buckeye coach Kelley Moore, who was the head coach of that Mesa team. “We lost some close games and it never fazed them. Then, they put it together. They didn’t waver. They kept working. Biggest thing that happened is when we played Hamilton (a 43-22 loss in the final regular-season game). We took the opening kickoff and drove down and scored. We stopped them, then kicked a field goal. They scored. They beat us handily. But I remember that Saturday, saying, ‘If that’s their best, then we can do this.'”
Mesa wasn’t able to sustain it in the final, falling to Hamilton 35-0 during the height of the Huskies’ dynasty.
“We had six turnovers so they should have beaten us,” Moore said. “I don’t know (if a run like Mesa’s can happen again) because maybe kids are too selfish. It’s going to take a team that’s not full of selfish people. Those kids were unselfish.”
Centennial’s run to the Division I title in 2015 that saw the Coyotes knock out Hamilton in the quarterfinals, Mountain Pointe in the semis and Desert Ridge in the final was amazing, if not stunning, and a big statement for the west side.
But Centennial, moved up to the biggest level for one season in ’15, had always believed it was on the same plane with the best teams in Arizona. And often proved it with wins over Chandler, Hamilton and Brophy.
Centennial coach Richard Taylor has never wavered at big-time competition.
Second-year Phoenix Shadow Mountain coach Ronnie Fagan noticed that in the three years he assisted in Taylor’s Centennial program.
“My first year over there, I remember ESPN doing an interview, and Coach Taylor opened his office door so all of the players could hear him,” Fagan said. “He said, ‘We will play anybody, anywhere, any time.’ ‘
Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock saw his team pull one of the biggest first-round upsets state history in 2010 when his Jaguars beat a Brett Hundley-led Chandler team 38-35 as a 10 seed.
But in the last eight years, Hathcock admits it has become harder to post the shocking upset at state, especially deep. And especially when “dynasty” schools keep loading up with more transfers.
“Creating a powerhouse isn’t what it used to be,” Hathcock said. “Powerhouses used to be based on tradition and development. Now powerhouses are generally the mercenary type teams.
“I think hard-nosed football teams are the only teams that have a chance to take down powerhouses.”
To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at [email protected] or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.
Defending state champs
6A – Chandler
5A – Centennial
4A – Saguaro
3A – Queen Creek Casteel
2A – Thatcher
1A – Williams