The calendar has officially hit the month of November, which means we’re about to embark on the best month of the high school sports calendar.
Central to that boon are the 16-team playoffs that will kick off on Friday night across the six divisions in Arizona.
Four northwest Tucson programs, Pusch Ridge Christian Academy in 3A, Canyon del Oro in 4A and Ironwood Ridge and Marana in 5A qualified for the playoffs.
The quartet face daunting odds of making it past their first-round foes, with the Lions facing fourth-seed Page, while CDO takes on Cactus, Marana faces Cienega and Ironwood Ridge squares off against Higley.
The four squads have fared well this season, with CDO and Ironwood Ridge going 7-3 in the regular season, while Ironwood Ridge went 6-4 and PRCA went 5-5.
It’ll be fun to see which teams can advance to next Friday’s quarterfinal round of the big dance and who heads home after a first round exit.
Here’s how I see each game going in Friday’s opening round of the AIA state playoffs:
(12) Ironwood Ridge (6-4) at (5) Higley, 7 p.m.
The Nighthawks closed the season with three-straight wins, over Sunnyside, Buena and Cienega to clinch the 5A Southern region. Their reward is a challenging opening round matchup with Higley in Gilbert on Friday. The Knights posted a 7-3 record this season, falling to California’s Moorpark High School, as well as Casteel and Williams Field, who beat the Knights, 51-14 in last week’s season finale. The Knights have one of the best QBs in the state, senior Spencer Brasch, who threw for 2,594 yards and 36 touchdowns in 10 games. The Nighthawks’ run-heavy offense, led by senior back Nathan Grijalva, will be hard-pressed to counter the Knights’ high-flying offense on the road, but I’m not one to rule Matt Johnson out, especially in the postseason.
Score Prediction: Ironwood Ridge 35, Higley 31
(9) Marana at (8) Cienega, 7 p.m.
The Tigers rolled over Nogales on the border, 51-0, to close out the regular season and earn the 9th seed in the 5A playoffs. Their reward is a matchup against the Bobcats, who knocked them out of the playoffs in last year’s quarterfinal round, 38-35. The Tigers want nothing more than revenge in this one, a year after quarterback Trenton Bourguet torched the Bobcats for 285 yards and two touchdowns. It’ll be interesting to see how the senior does, as he goes for his first-ever win over the Bobcats on Friday. This year’s Bobcats team isn’t amazing, averaging 313.2 yards per game and 135.8 passing yards per game. Pat Nugent’s team features a cut-throat defense that’s given up 15.8 points per game this year, with a pass rush that’s averaging 2 sacks per game this year. Expect this one to be another barnburner in a series full of them, with the winner coming away in the game’s waning minutes.
Score Prediction: Cienega 42, Marana 40
(10) Canyon del Oro at (7) Cactus, 7 p.m.
The Dorados posted an impressive 7-3 record this year, with a one-point season opening loss to Flowing Wells probably serving as the difference between hosting a first round game and making the long voyage to Phoenix. The Dorados are bolstered offensively by having two healthy backs, in sophomore Stevie Rocker and senior Diego Munguia, which should boost their odds of upsetting the Cobras. The Dorados’ phenomenal rushing attack, which averaged 253.8 yards per game during the regular season should give Cactus fits, setting them up for an upset win, assuming QB Zach Eidenschink can continue his steadfast play under center. I’m buying Dustin Peace’s team right now and think they’ll shock the world this week on the road.
Score Prediction: CDO 40, Cactus 28
(13) Pusch Ridge Christian Academy at (4) Page, 7 p.m.
The defending 3A runners-up got a raw deal in drawing the 13th seed, having to travel 383 miles to play Page on Friday night. The Lions, under coach Jerry Harris, have hit their stride late in the season, hammering Catalina Magnet, 41-6 to close out the regular season. The Lions are much better than their 5-5 record, with sophomore back Evan Lovett racing his way into the hearts and minds of fans and teammates alike, with 1,104 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns this year. The Sand Devils of Page are a solid team, going 7-3 thanks to an offense that averaged 323 rushing yards per game this season. That said, I’m not dumb enough to go against a Harris-coached team in the postseason, given the way his teams have whooped their competitors in do-or-die contests. Expect the Lions to pull off an ‘upset’ in Page on Friday, making it to the second weekend once again, a year after coming just short of a state title in 3A.
Score Prediction: Pusch Ridge 41, Page 20