Welcome to the start of the 2018 high school football season, affectionately known as Week Zero in these parts.
We’re fortunate enough to have two days of football this week, starting with Thursday’s kickoff between Ironwood Ridge and Mountain View, followed by a doubleheader of noteworthy games, including Canyon del Oro vs. Flowing Wells and Marana vs. Horizon in Phoenix.
There are so many must-watch games on the periphery, with six top-notch programs dotting the northwestern fringes of Tucson.
Here are some of the contests that stand out to me, some 24 hours before the pigskin soars through the sky for the first time in 2018.
All games kick off at 7 p.m.
Honorable Mention: Catalina Foothills at Salpointe Catholic, Oct. 19
The Falcons and Lancers are two of the traditional powers in Division 4A, with the legendary Jeff Scurran leading Catalina Foothills, while Dennis Bene returns for the Lancers. The two teams will likely meet in mid-October with the 4A Kino Region at stake. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Falcons fare in slowing down dynamic back Bijan Robinson of Salpointe, coming off a spectacular sophomore season where he ran for 2,023 yards with 26 touchdowns for the Lancers. Robinson and backfield mate Mario Padilla—who racked up 776 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground a year ago himself—could pose problems for Scurran’s defense. It’ll be up to defensive stalwarts like Bobby Heitzinger and Keith Swailem, who had 187 combined tackles a year ago, to slow down the Lancers’ ferocious rushing attack and keep the Falcons alive. Don’t be surprised if they rise to the challenge.
5. Ironwood Ridge at Mountain View, Aug. 16
There’s no better way to kickoff a season than with two regional rivals fresh off a barnburner of a game in the year before. That’s exactly what the Nighthawks and Lions did a year ago, when the Lions survived a 48-minute nail-biter against IRHS, winning 28-23 in one of the best games of the 2017 season. It’ll be interesting to see how the Nighthawks fare offensively without their one-two punch of quarterback Heath Beemiller and running back Nick Brahler, who graduated in May. It’ll be the first test for Brahler’s heir apparent, Nathan Grijalva, who struggled against the Lions last season, earning -6 yards on one carry, to go with -1 receiving yards on one catch. The Lions feature one of the best defenses in the state, with their linebacking corps of Calib McRae and Aaron Logsdon returning. Both were a thorn in the Nighthawks’ side last season, with McRae accumulating 10 tackles and 1 tackle for loss, while Logsdon had 7 tackles for the team. Expect this one to be a low-scoring game that will likely determine who has the inside track in the Division 5A playoff race.
4. Safford at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, Oct. 19
Safford is coming off an uncharacteristically bad year in 2017, going 4-7, after being one of the toughest teams in Division 3A (or Division IV, back in the day). The Lions will be pressed to replace the output of quarterback Christian Fetsis and backs like Dakota Haynes and Tamerat McLeod, who paced a backfield that averaged 317.9 rushing yards per game last season. Expect Ryan Garcia and PJ Haynes (Dakota’s younger brother) to do their fair share in keeping the Lions afloat, with Garcia racking up 623 rushing yards and Haynes earning 196 more, with 12 scores between them in 2017. The Lions shouldn’t miss a beat, thanks to Coach Jerry Harris’ hard-nosed rushing attack that seems to be unstoppable each season. I expect the Bulldogs of Safford to be their lone threat in the Division 3A South region, thanks to the return of players like Mason Duros at quarterback and Dylan Dorell in the backfield, with Duros throwing for 402 yards and three touchdowns in limited action, while Dorrell earned 174 yards on the ground and a score for the Bulldogs last season.
3. Salpointe at CDO, Oct. 12
The Dorados are coming off a down year in 2017, going 4-6, despite the insane effort put in by Elijah Carey in his final high school season. Coach Dustin Peace and his team will have to find a way to replace Carey’s 1,795 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns. Luckily for Peace, he can turn to rising senior quarterback Zach Eidenschink, who threw for 1,106 yards and 16 touchdowns a year ago. Eidenschink will have a full complement of receivers, with Jose Cruz and Ichiro Ramos returning. Cruz, who had a team-best 484 receiving yards and 7 receiving touchdowns, and Ramos, who had 355 receiving yards and 5 scores, should help the Dorados return to normalcy this fall. It’ll be interesting to see how the trio fares against a Lancer defense that surrendered 11.1 points per game and forced 9 interceptions a year ago. Expect this one to be a high-scoring affair, with the Dorados’ playoff lives at stake.
2. Marana at Ironwood Ridge, Oct. 5
October is a month full of glorious rematch opportunities, with Marana and Ironwood Ridge presenting one of the best examples. The two teams met in last year’s week zero, with the Nighthawks winning a wild one, 42-35. Both squads torched their opponent’s defensive units, with IRHS gashing the Tigers for 314 rushing yards and four touchdowns on the ground, while the Tigers lit up the scoreboard through the air, with do-it-all quarterback Trenton Bourguet chucking 29 passes for 376 yards. The two squads should be in fine form once again by the time they meet in early October, with Grijalva and the Nighthawks trying to do what they can to counter Bourguet and his stacked receiving unit of Diego Miranda, Tariq Jordan and Alfred Ebunoha—who had 1,123 receiving yards between them last year. A wildcard for the Tigers this year could be back Rene Valenzuela, who led the Tigers on the ground last season, with 827 yards and 8 touchdowns. His performance against a strong IRHS defense could be the difference between a win and a loss for the Tigers in what should be a fantastic playoff-deciding contest.
Williams Field at Marana, Sept. 14
First-year Marana Coach Louie Ramirez set his team up with a litany of gut-churning non-sectional contests this fall, with games against Phoenix power Horizon on Aug. 16 and a home clash against Queen Creek power Williams Field in mid-September. The Tigers will welcome the Black Hawks, who went 8-3 in 2017, to Marana in a matchup of the unstoppable force (Marana’s passing game) versus the immovable object (Williams Field’s pass secondary). The Black Hawks’ secondary is stacked full of talent, with 6-foot-2-inch Noa Pola-Gates and 6-foot-3-insch Jadon Pearson manning the safety positions for WF this fall. Both Pola-Gates and Pearson are highly regarded prospects, with the former sporting a four-star rating, according to 247 Sports. Pearson, meanwhile, has received five scholarship offers and sports a two-star ranking, coming off a year where he snatched 6 interceptions and a fumble, scoring one defensive touchdowns. The two fearsome safeties will challenge Bourguet’s elite arm, making him check down and look off his go-to passing targets, which will interesting to watch. It’ll be interesting to see how Jordan and Ebunoha handle the blanket coverage that both safeties will provide, and whether the Tigers can escape their early season contests against Horizon and Williams Field unscathed.