By: Seth Polansky
For the first time in its partnership with the AIA, Sprouts will be awarding a $500 gift card to its Team of the Season for this past fall sports season. Voting will take place this Wednesday through Friday on the AZPreps365 Live app, which is free in the Apple app store and Google Play.
The four finalists – Chaparral football, Liberty football, Santa Cruz Valley football and Thatcher volleyball – were selected by the AZPreps365 writers based on overall performance, overcoming obstacles, community involvement and other intangibles that made this a memorable season.
Fans must download and register the app to vote. Voting will take place from Wednesday at 10 a.m. until Friday at 10 a.m. The winning team will be announced on the AZPreps365 Saturday morning show this Saturday the 30th between 8-10 a.m. The nominees are below.
Chaparral didn’t play its first three regular season games due to COVID-19. When it took the field, it opened with a 2-2 record, as the Firebirds dealt with injuries and tried to find their footing. It had to win its fifth regular season game to qualify for the playoffs, which it did. Despite the obstacles, Chaparral regrouped and wound up as the champ in the 6A Conference. During its postseason run as the No. 7 seed in the eight-team tournament, Chaparral defeated the No. 2, 3 and 4 seeds. It played its semifinal game without the starting running back, who played injured in the final. Chaparral capped its roller coaster season with a 24-14 win over Highland in the final.
“Unbelievable job by our offensive line and our defense,” said Chaparral coach Brent Barnes after the 6A final. “Those two groups really controlled the game. That’s how you win championships. I’m proud of our guys.”
Liberty finished the 2020 season 6-4. Doesn’t sound like a lofty accomplishment, but consider several factors. The Lions were mentored by a first-year head coach – Colin Thomas. He was a Liberty assistant in 2019. Liberty returned only six of 22 starters (three on offense and three on defense) from its 6A championship squad in 2019. Add to that its schedule was as rigorous as any in the 6A ranks. Liberty played powers Chandler twice, Centennial twice, Chaparral, Sunrise Mountain, Queen Creek, Pinnacle and Red Mountain – all heavyweights in their neck of the woods. They defeated 2020 6A champ Chaparral (53-27) in the regular season and split games with Centennial (won the second meeting in Open Division tournament). The most astonishing fact in terms of schedule is the games with Chandler. The teams opened the COVID season Oct. 2 with Chandler winning 44-10. They played again two months later in the Open semis with Chandler escaping with a 35-34 OT win (denied Liberty’s two-point conversion attempt to avoid loss and win Open for second year in a row). Four of Liberty’s eight regular-season opponents qualified for either the Open (Chandler, Centennial), 6A (Queen Creek) or 5A (Sunrise Mountain) tournaments.
Santa Cruz Valley football
High school football championships have been played in Arizona for over 110 years since the dawn of the previous century with official championships decided in a playoff format beginning in 1959. Sadly, no African-American has ever coached a team to a state championship in Arizona until Rishard Davis led the Santa Cruz Dust Devils to a 2A championship this past fall.
Santa Cruz went 6-34 in the years prior to his arrival in Eloy in 2014, and it took him just two years to make the playoffs and he led the program to two semifinal finishes and a runner-up finish before winning it all by beating top-seeded Benson 42-7 on the final day of the season.
His top player, Hunter Ogle, gained 2,096 yards rushing to win the Arizona rushing title by almost 300 yards and he finished 28thin the nation for total yards. Ogle also led the Dust Devils with 59 tackles. Even though he competed in the 2A level, he was a Top-5 Finalist for the Ed Doherty Award, handed out to the best player in all of Arizona.
Ogle’s brother, Wyatt Ogle, threw for 586 yards but he also collected 35 tackles and pulled in six interceptions. In all, the Dust Devils collected 20 interceptions with the only loss on the year coming against 4A power Casa Grande. The Cougars needed an opponent that week and Santa Cruz was the only team to step up to the plate to take on a team playing two divisions above them. Casa Grande won that game 35-14 but Hunter Ogle still gained 135 yards with both TDs. It also dropped the Dust Devils from a top-ranking to No. 3, which could have cost them the season.
Further, Santa Cruz had a positive .3102 strength of schedule and no other team in the 2A Conference in the top 12 had a positive strength of schedule heading into the playoffs.
The town of Eloy ranges between 14,000 and 20,000 citizens depending on the season of the year and it’s a proud community that has sent several players to NFL despite all odds.
Although Thatcher High School had dominated volleyball in the 2A conference the previous two seasons – going 17-0 in non-tournament play each campaign – the Eagles’ move up to 3A this past fall was expected to endure some setbacks, especially against two 2019 state tournament qualifiers and last season’s Central Region runners-up, the Safford Bulldogs.
But the Eagles not only went undefeated against their new South Central Region opponents in their first year in the conference, they did not lose a single game to them, rolling to the state semifinals before falling to eventual champion Northwest Christian.
“I feel like they earned it and really worked hard all season,” Thatcher head coach Kim Orr said after her team swept the No. 13 seed in the 3A tournament, Tanque Verde. The South Central Coach of the Year, Orr and her Eagles went on to hold No. 5 seed Arizona College Preparatory Academy below 20 in three straight games to advance to the second weekend of the playoffs. “It’s really a big confidence booster [because it] let them realize, ‘Hey, we do belong here, and we’re going to be OK no matter what.’”
Against a schedule that did not allow for tournaments, dramatically shortened due to the effects of COVID-19, the Eagles suffered their only three setbacks in the regular season to regional rival Snowflake (twice) and Pima high schools.
They would end up with two players on the all-3A team, with South Central Region Player of the Year Mikaela Jorgensen earning a spot on the first team and the region’s Offensive Player of the Year, junior Olivia Lunt, making the second team.
Not bad for a height-challenged group returning only one player six feet tall – Lunt. The only other six-footer, freshman Peyton Devlin, would end up starting by the end of the season and became one of 10 Eagles selected to all-region teams.