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Thoughts from a summer Saturday in the sun

Bendle leads Liberty to ACU passing tournament win

WEEKLY BLOG:  6/11/17

In the year-round cycle that is high school football, June has become known as 7-on-7 and big man challenge "season".  Annual tournaments pop up around the Valley, whether it's north in Flagstaff, or down in Tucson.  Normally, I just check the twitter feed for some results and photos (which I share) and return to the air-conditioned confines of my living room.  But after eight years of this, I decided to check one out.

So it was off to the Scottsdale Sports Complex in north Phoenix.  During the Waste Management Open, this is the site of the famed Birds Nest, but on two summer Saturdays, it's home to a pair of competitions.  Saturday, Arizona Christian University hosted the passing tournament and the lineman competition.

For the uninitiated, 7-on-7 kind of looks like your normal school yard football.  One quarterback, a center, and five players who are eligible to receive passes.  There's no runs, reverses, or double passes.  Games were played with a 25-minute running clock (no time outs!).  Half-fields are used and play started on the 40 with three downs to reach the 25, three more to get to the 10, and three to score. 

Kickers are not people too at these events as there are no punts, kickoffs, or field goals.  Touchdowns are the normal six with a PAT from either the 5-yard line (1 point), or the 10 (2 points).  An interesting nuance is the ability of the defense to score - 2 points at this tournament - for an interception.

Since games are played without helmets and pads, tackling is not allowed (one-hand touch).  With no pass rush, to simulate getting the ball off quickly, quarterbacks were allowed four seconds to release the ball before a loss of down call.  Offenses weren't able to stall as there was a 30-second play clock.  Defenders were allowed to jam receivers at the line of scrimmage only.  Rather than have quarterbacks retreat to the sidelines, one offensive coach stood behind the offense along with a maximum of three players.

For the ACU event, 19 different schools were represented from large 6A teams down to 2A and one from the Canyon Athletic Association.  Eighteen were in the passing tournament and 16 in the big man challenge.  Let's take a trip through the day and bounce around.

One of the great things about these are the ability to see, or for players to compete against, several different schools in one day.  With games shorter and without linemen, most were very competitive.  As a matter of fact, I saw more close games (six decided by four or less) in 5-1/2 hours, than I did all of last season!

Seven of the 18 teams in the passing tournament are being led by new head coaches this season.  Verrado is one of them as defensive coordinator Tom Ward was elevated to the position after Derek Wahlstrom resigned in April.  The Vipers started the day with a 32-6 victory over Chino Hills as their new-look defense allowed just one score.

"Our strength will be up front," Ward said.  "But, we're starting a whole new secondary.  We're real young back there."

It's not always possible for vacation schedules for families to coincide with the month of June, so when starters are gone, it gives younger kids a chance to get a some experience and a better idea of what's in store speed and cover-wise.

Verrado finished 7-4 last season, defeated Desert Edge for the first time, and made the 5A playoffs.  The Vipers benefit from having an offseason class in the spring semester, so they have been working all year.  New quarterback Titan Widjaja, a junior, has several weapons including running back Ja'tai Jenkins, and receivers Jonah Alicea and Marcus Rivera.

Another new coach is Vince Ciliberti, who has been a longtime offensive coordinator at Pinnacle.  Ciliberti is now at Mountain Ridge after being hired in February.  He is the Mountain Lions' first new head coach in 11 years.  MRHS has a record of 12-28 over the past four seasons.  Mountain Ridge eked out a 20-18 win in its first game against Washington.

"They're very hard workers," Ciliberti said of his team.  "That's one of the things that surprised me.  You'd think coming in with a team that was consistently 3-7, you wouldn't see that.  It's kind of refreshing."

Mountain Ridge doesn't have a lot of depth, but was looking to compete and learn how to play together at this event.  Owen Gordon is one of the few receivers with experience.  For a school that hasn't won a lot on Friday nights, pulling out games on Saturday mornings are the start of the building blocks of learning how to win.

Palo Verde was the lone Tucson school to make the bus ride up early on Saturday morning in time for its first game at 10 a.m.  This was the Titans' third trip north to the Valley in a couple weeks.  PVHS was at Central High School's tournament at the end of May and also participated at ASU earlier this week.  It may seem like head coach Larry Ruhf is throwing his 4A school to the wolves by taking on so many 5A and 6A opponents, but it's helping the Titans a little each day.  After a sluggish first half, Palo Verde rallied for a 16-14 win over Sequoia Pathway, a CAA school that was a late add-in.

"When we play some 6A and 5A teams in Phoenix, it doesn't seem so daunting when we play Tucson teams," Ruhf said.  "They don't worry about the size difference as much."

Palo Verde's quarterback from last year wasn't on this trip, so Devonte Bates was playing the position.  Bates is a basketball player that they talked into playing some football.  Ruhf said Bates is probably the best receiver they have at their school.  The Titans are 4-27 over the past three seasons, but the team is just working to get better every play.

After those three games, I took a trip up to the north fields where the big man competition was going on.  The challenge consisted of eight events.  They were a 20-yard dash (because, do linemen really need to run further?), two different shuttle agility drills, a medicine ball toss, a farmer's carry (with two 80-pound dumbbells), a tractor tire flip (which weighed 300 pounds), a 45-pound plate push relay, and the tug of war.  Points were awarded in each of the first seven competitions and were used to seed teams for the tug of war.

I watched a few schools do the tire flip.  Each team was allowed to compete with five players per event.  In this one, it was simply how many times each one could flip the very large tire in 30 seconds.  The score was the cumulative total of all five competitors.  There were some who had difficulties even getting the tire up to its peak to flip it over once.  It was enlightening to see the big guys from the other schools encourage those who aren't as strong to reach deep and do their best to get even one or two.

The groups that worked best had all five members (and teammates who weren't competing in it), giving vocal support to help and in some cases it was like a wave as some were able to flip it seven or eight times.  Copper Canyon was one of those schools.

"The kids just work really hard," Copper Canyon assistant coach Akin said.  "They're especially committed to getting stronger this year."

Akin said events like this are a way to measure themselves against other teams in the Valley to see where they stack up.  The Aztecs were 3-7 last season and have not had a winning record since 2006.

After that, it was back for the last of the three games of pool play for Desert Ridge and Horizon.  Desert Ridge was 8-4 last season and the Jaguars have won at least that many for seven straight years.  But head coach Jeremy Hathcock's team is younger this season, and he just lost one of his best defensive linemen as Jason Harris transferred to Higley earlier this week.  In a back-and-forth game, DRHS topped Horizon 22-19 to finish 3-0 before the tournament began.

"When they're young, they're like clay," Hathcock said.  "They're so moldable.  It's one of the first groups in a long time that wants to be coached."

Desert Ridge played with a lot of enthusiasm as the team was coming off a poor outing at ASU and wanted to redeem itself.  Three different quarterbacks saw time for the Jaguars as sophomore starter Matt Purnell has been battling a back issue.  Purnell started four games last season as a freshman.  Hathcock said passing league teaches players how to understand how to work their leverage.

After that, the results from the morning were tabulated and the 18-team bracket (single elimination) took shape.  Four schools had a play-in game to reach the field of 16.  Mountain Ridge (15th seed) was in one of those games while Verrado was the No. 1 seed.  In a first-round game Desert Ridge (#3) took on Palo Verde (#14).

As those games began, I ate a quick lunch and reloaded Gatorade from the cooler brought in the car and hoofed it back to the Big Man as the tug of war was getting set to start.

Just like the passing league, Verrado was the top seed heading into the last event.  Copper Canyon (#10) pulled (literally) a couple of upsets over O'Connor and Desert Ridge in the first two rounds of the tug of war to reach the semifinals.  In the quarterfinals, Verrado fell to Horizon and lost the ability to earn any more points.  In the end, it was Millennium (#5) and Buckeye (#3) meeting one another in the finals.  With eight points at stake in the last round, the winner would pass Verrado in total score.  That ended up being Buckeye.  Verrado placed second overall followed by Millennium and Desert Ridge.

"We've been working pretty hard in the weight room since March," Buckeye defensive line coach Sam Marquez said.  "These kids put their work in."

Buckeye has gone 23-9 over the past three seasons under Kelley Moore.  The Hawks won the 4A Southwest Region last season and will open 2017 season on the island of Oahu against Kailua HS.  The Surfriders (they have those there) were 3-5 last year.  Moore's team could be looking to make more noise this year and it starts up front with the line, which has now won two lineman competitions this month.  BHS was victorious in Peoria a week ago at the Westside competition.

"We work really hard," senior right tackle and defensive lineman Angel Gordillo said.  "We want to get noticed out in Buckeye."

Gordillo said the atmosphere I saw around the tire flip is normal for them. 

"In the weight room, all the starting linemen lift together," Gordillo said.

For what it's worth, Gordillo said his favorite event was the 5-10-5 shuttle and he thought the toughest was the 45-pound plate push.  The plate had to be maneuvered around a cone and back to the starting position which required a perfect balance.

With that event over, it was time reload with another Gatorade in the car (coolers are wonderful things) and check in on the tournament.

The quarterfinals were just getting under way and #5 Copper Canyon was meeting #4 O'Connor.  Of all the teams in the passing competition, the Aztecs showed the most spirit on the sidelines.  It's an infectious attitude brought on by head coach Shawn Kemmer and it goes beyond the game of football.  On the field, Kemmer said the team was close to hitting its ceiling as the Aztecs held off a late O'Connor rally for a 22-18 win.

"We're going to do a lot of community service work," Kemmer said.  "I really believe in developing the whole kid."

Copper Canyon works with the Feeding Hope Food Bank in Glendale on a regular basis.  As far as the spirit goes, it's the mantra of INAM - It's Not About Me.  It's an attitude of being selfless and giving maximum effort (or close to it) while playing for one another regardless of the stats you may put up on any given night or day.

That game ended a little earlier than the other quarterfinal on the adjacent field, so I got to see the end of Horizon against Buckeye.  I had to double check my bracket to see that, like the tug of war, Horizon knocked off top-seeded Verrado in this tournament as well.  Horizon tried to battle back late, but dropped a 27-20 decision to Buckeye.

It was after that I noticed one of the best things of the day.  Away from the crowds following the tournament and away from the referees, Palo Verde was playing a game against Chino Valley.  They could have hit the long road back home to their respective schools after bowing out, but they wanted to get a little more work in before grabbing lunch and getting out of town.

With Copper Canyon meeting Buckeye and Liberty taking on Millennium, it was an all-West Valley final four.  I took my first look of the day at the Lions and Tigers.

You get the feeling with all passing that the game is skewed toward the offenses.  But that wasn't the case in this semifinal.  It was Liberty's defense that forced seven coverage "sacks".  After four seconds of looking around and being unable to find anyone open (or not risk throwing an interception), the referee's whistle would blow and a down would be docked from Millennium.  The Lions had just enough offense as they hung on for a 17-14 victory.

"Our kids compete to the whistle," Liberty head coach Mark Smith said.  "With the coverage sacks, our D-linemen would get there in that amount of time in a game."

Smith said the main thing he is looking for this offseason is consistency.  When the Lions need a play, who will they go to?  On defense, who is going to step up and be that vocal leader that's needed in tough times?  Compounding things is the need for a lot of coaching as 17 of the 22 starters this year will be new.  The offense returns just one starter, quarterback Ryan Bendle.  And Bendle didn't play QB last season.  He rushed for 662 yards and 11 touchdowns.

Liberty faced Buckeye in the finals and after taking a 24-14 lead, the Lions fell behind 30-24.  Buckeye senior receiver Elias Anderson made an incredible leaping one-handed catch for one of the scores.  The Lions tied the game in the final minute on a touchdown play from Bendle to Dylen Bieber.  With strong play from Bieber, running back Jett Kinsch and receiver Jace Johnson, the Lions have options where to go to when they need a play in critical moments.

"We're definitely stacked in a lot of positions," Bendle said.  "Our defensive locks it down every time in spring ball."

This was the second consecutive weekend that Liberty has won a passing title.  Like Buckeye's bigs, the Lions' skill players took honors at the Westside tournament.  It's also important to remember that when Bendle was the freshman quarterback, he played with the guys that are seniors around him now.  So, while they may be new to starting positions, they are familiar with one another.

Bendle said 7-on-7 is a lot different then "regular football".  There's much less contact.  But a benefit in passing league is learning how to figure out coverages.

The coaches and staff at Arizona Christian put on a great tournament.  They served as the referees, the judges, schedulers, and much more.  Like the Nike tournament that was played in this same venue on May 27, the facility serves well with plenty of available fields without too much walking.  Also, in the spirit of the university, Moore told the Liberty team that he was going to lead his team in a post-game prayer.  The Lions wrapped up quick and every player and coach joined in the huddle.  It was also a reminder to be grateful of the things that didn't happen during the day.  Namely injuries, people dropping from heatstroke, and fighting.

Nearly every coach I talked to stated the reason they were there was to get better.  The competition created by getting to face someone different than who they see every day in practice is a factor as well.

So while the sunburn that I'm sporting will fade away in a week or so, the memories will remain.  No, 7-on-7 isn't the same thing we'll see on Friday nights under the lights later this summer (first game is August 17) and skills in tug of war won't win anyone a state title, but it will help teams improve on what they have by then.

PHOTO CAPTION:  (Far Top) Liberty quarterback Ryan Bendle gets ready to fire a pass in Saturday's Arizona Christian Passing Tournament.  The Lions finished 7-0 to take home the trophy in this second annual event.  (Above) Buckeye's five linemen dig in and move the rope (and their opposition) in the tug of war competition.  By winning the final, it vaulted the Hawks from third to first in total points.

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Arizona athletes make statement in Oakland

Chandler WR Romney named as MVP at The Opening

WEEKLY BLOG:  5/28/17

Phoenix may have recently passed Philadelphia as the fifth largest city in America, but there is no tour stop as of yet for Nike Football's The Opening Regionals.  That means top-flight players in the state have to travel to attend the national event.

Last Sunday was the last of the 13 regionals and it took place on the field turf at De Anza HS in the East Bay near Oakland.  Arizona had representation from an even dozen prospects that competed in four different events (40-yard dash, vertical jump, 20-yard shuttle, and kneeling powerball throw (6 lbs.).  The results from each of these are then tabulated to give a combined rating.  A total of 356 athletes took part in the competition, which is by invite-only as registration info was sent out to top players across the country.

Two quarterbacks made the trip to Oakland.  One is familiar to Southeast Valley football fans and one is a new face for this season.  Queen Creek's Devin Larsen made the Bulldogs a more balanced team in 2016 as a sophomore.  The 6-4, 201-pound redhead completed 62 percent of his passes for 2,524 yards and 25 touchdown passes.  He led QCHS into the 5A semifinals with a 10-3 record.  In the first round of the playoffs, he was lights out going 18-for-22 and 350 yards with six TD passes in a 62-0 blanking of Desert View.  Derek Kline was a two-year starter at Galena High in Reno.  The 6-5, 204-pounder has transferred to Desert Vista and was with the Thunder for spring ball.  Kline, who is a senior, had 23 touchdowns in his varsity career with the Grizzlies.  College scouts have taken a notice of Kline already as he received an offer from Morehead State a couple weeks ago.

At the running back position, Verrado's Ja'tai Jenkins had his second season of more than 800 yards for the Vipers last fall.  The 5-9, 173-pound back was named the MVP at the position for the camp.  Jenkins flashed a lot of speed with a 4.67 time in the 40.  He said getting invited to these regionals was an achievement to keep his name out there for his college future.

"I'm trying to go D-I, so now all I have to do is continue my grind, stay patient, and stay humble," Jenkins said in a text message.  "As far as recruiting, it's been going up since the regionals a little.  I just got my first offer (from Adams State), so I can't really complain.  Hopefully, I can get more in the future."

Speaking of the future, Salpointe running back Bijan Robinson-McCloud was one of the few freshmen in the stadium.  Out of 31 running backs, Robinson-McCloud was the only one from the Class of 2020.  Instead of playing on Wednesday nights last year, he was under the Friday night lights rushing for 378 yards on varsity with four touchdowns.  Against Catalina Foothills, Robinson-McCloud had 140 yards in just 12 carries.  The 5-11, 187-pound athlete forms a young duo with junior Mario Padilla for the Lancers (10-3 last season) this fall.

Another freshman was Shadow Ridge wide receiver Benjamin Kenyon.  Kenyon, who played JV for the Stallions, is 5-9 and 147 pounds.  He played a lot of running back for SRHS last season, but competed in Oakland under the wide receiver category.  A pair of teammates from Chandler were there as well.  Jarick Caldwell and Gunner Romney may be the best receiver tandem this season catching passes from the experienced Jacob Conover (who started as a sophomore).  Caldwell (6-3, 206) was the leading receiver in last November's state championship with five receptions for 106 yards and two touchdowns.  He was listed as a tight end on the official results page.  Romney (6-2, 180) was the team-leader with 1,309 yards and nine TDs.  Romney also took home the MVP among receivers.  He enjoyed getting out and competing with tons of great athletes.  Part of the camp featured WRs and DBs going head-to-head.

"I personally liked the 1-on-1's the best," Romney said in a text message.  "To be able to compete 1-on-1 is fun."

After registering the results from all 13 events, Nike Football selects the top 166 to attend dynamic training, coaching, and competition.  This will take place from June 28 to July 3 at Nike's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.  Simply called The Opening Finals, it was featured in eight hours of broadcast time on ESPNU last summer.  Invited to attend this year's festivities is North Canyon wide receiver Solomon Enis.

Enis, who is 6-4 and 191 pounds, was clocked at 4.64 in the 40.  Last season, he led the Rattlers with 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns.  Enis is one of the state's most-recruited players with a total of 15 offers (nine from the Pac-12).  He attended the spring game at Penn State, where his father, Curtis, was an All-American running back.  Enis said it was a great feeling to be chosen for the showcase later this summer.  On Saturday, North Canyon was one of the 32 teams at the Scottsdale Nike 7-on-7 tournament.  Despite getting knocked down in pool play (0-3), the Rattlers cruised through the Silver bracket (consisting of seeds 21-32) going a perfect 4-0 to claim the honors.  Last year was a turnaround season for NCHS as the team finished 6-4 a year after going winless.

"There is more confidence," Enis said in a text message of this year's team.  "We are working harder than we did last year and we will be better this year!"

It's not all about the skill position players.  A pair of offensive linemen were represented in Javier Meza, III and Brandon McCrea.  Meza is a 6-2, 270-pound guard.  He helped Cesar Chavez to a 6A Metro Region title last year as the Champions finished a perfect 5-0 in league play.  This fall will be Meza's fourth year starting on varsity.  McCrea (6-3, 256) plays both right tackle and right guard at Deer Valley.  McCrea, along with Joey Ramos and Xavier Robinson-Delgado should provide an experienced unit for the Skyhawks this season as the team looks to make the playoffs after just barely missing out last year despite going 6-4.

Moving over to the defense, Pinnacle's Luke Aschenbrand has offers from Air Force and Brown.  The 6-3, 264-pound defensive tackle is part of an entire D-Line that returns for the Pioneers to go with a defense that only loses one linebacker and has several rock-solid corners.  Combine that with the offense everyone knows about, led by Spencer Rattler, and PHS should go far in 2017.  Of the individual events, Aschenbrand said the one that best correlates to the way linemen play on the field is the powerball throw.  Like the name implies, it showcases the power a human can create when they want to move a defender out of the way to get to the ball carrier.  In addition to the competitive elements, working with others that aid in individual development proves valuable.

"The technique periods with the coaches at The Opening is where I felt like I did best," Aschenbrand said in a text message.  "I was able to show what I knew and received top-level coaching that helped me improve as a player."

Finally, Kai Golden (6-2, 290) is an interior lineman at Marana Mountain View.  The nose guard had 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks for the Mountain Lions last season.  Golden said competing last Sunday was different than being with his brothers in the trenches on a game night.

"I would say Sunday was nerve-racking," Golden said in a text message.  "When you're going into a game, you play for the bigger picture.  Your goal is to play for the man next to you to achieve a goal that you all want and with that, your team depends on you.  Sunday morning, it was all about me.  As far as nerves go, I wasn't calm!"

A total of 47 percent of last year's attendees signed a football scholarship and 33 percent were for a Division I school.  Golden has offers from Air Force, Montana, New Mexico State, and Virginia.  He has been on an unofficial visit to Virginia and is looking at the classes offered in addition to the game of football.

"My college interest so far has really leaned towards an academic school that offers the best engineering program," Golden said.  "I'm still looking for my home for the next four years, although I have spoken with my parents and prayed about it and I do have things that I hold of value from colleges!"

ARIZONA Players at Opening Oakland
  Player Position School
  Luke Aschenbrand   DL Pinnacle
  Jarick Caldwell  TE Chandler
  Solomon Enis  WR North Canyon
  Kai Golden  DL Marana Mountain View
  Ja'tai Jenkins  RB Verrado
  Benjamin Kenyon  WR Shadow Ridge
  Derek Kline  QB Desert Vista
  Devin Larsen  QB Queen Creek
  Brandon McCrea  OL Deer Valley
  Javier Meza, III  OL Cesar Chavez
  Bijan Robinson-McCloud  RB Salpointe
  Gunner Romney  WR Chandler

PHOTO CAPTION:  Chander wide receiver Gunner Romney makes a catch in last November's 6A State Championship Game.  The Wolves won their second title in three seasons, 36-17.  This season, Romney and CHS will host nationally-ranked IMG Academy out of Florida.  That game will take place on Saturday, Aug. 26 at Austin Field in Chandler.

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Spring Ball with the Wildcats

Willow Canyon has hopes of catching a spot in the 5A playoffs

WEEKLY BLOG:  5/21/17

Spring football coincides with the end of the school year.  Before final exams at Willow Canyon this week (on Tuesday and Wednesday), the Wildcats have spent the month working in the weight room and on the field.  On Saturday, they split the team up and put on a spirited showcase event.

The coaches divided the players up into two teams - Blue and Silver - and staged a three-step lineman competition sandwiched around two halves of 7-on-7 football for the skill position players.  Like most schools across the state, it is a time of optimism.

"I think that each day we figured out a little more how to compete and the importance of playing as a unit instead of as individuals," head coach Joe Martinez said.  "I think we ended up on a high note, which is fun to see."

Martinez took over as the head coach midway through the 2013 season.  While there was a minor improvement (up a win from 2015), the team still finished 3-7 and saw its playoff drought continue to five consecutive years.

But despite an offense that was shut out four times and averaged just 12.4 points per contest, the playoffs might not be that far off.  The Wildcats lost twice last season by a touchdown or less.  Replenishments for soon-to-graduate seniors will come from a JV squad that went 5-3 last season, defeated Valley Vista (that's big around here in Surprise), and competed better than expected against Liberty and Centennial.

"I think we had a very talented sophomore group," Martinez said.  "A lot of them played together on JV.  We think they're going to supplement what we have coming back."

The quarterback last season was a senior, so the battle is on to replace him.  Brendan "Bear" Haynes, a junior this fall, and Josh Ormond, last season's freshman team QB, will battle throughout the summer for the starting position.  Martinez said the competition has been stiff and Haynes did well with the JV squad last year.  Ormond has also showed well in the spring.

The older of the two quarterbacks got the early upper hand as he led the victorious Blue team to three touchdown drives in the spring game.

"He made some nice reads and made some nice throws," Martinez said of Haynes.

Aside from the passing game, Willow Canyon would like to run the football and the team returns leading rusher Dominic Cardoza.  The diminutive 5-7, 160-pounder made the best of his runs as a junior behind an offensive line that struggled in 2016.

"He's a great combination of balance and vision," Martinez said.  "We're hoping to be better up front this year and give him more lanes."

Offensively, the Wildcats will be under center and are one of the dwindling number of teams that still huddles between plays.  They will run some spread and give a multiple formations look.  On the defense, WCHS switches up from 3-4 to 4-3.

Willow Canyon has a young versatile athlete in Zach Enhelder.  The 6-3, 230-pound tight end can either be utilized as an extra lineman for the run game or as a receiver.  As a sophomore, he was a First Team All-5A Northwest Region selection by the coaches.

"He's a great tool for us," Martinez said.  "He's got an insatiable appetite in the weight room."

Enhelder can power clean 265 pounds and has squatted just under 400.  He was invited to the Nike Football Opening regional in Los Angeles back in March and showed well.

With several new players that lack varsity experience, the three weeks of practices have been valuable for the coaching staff.

"We've been able to do a lot of evaluation and film every practice from a couple angles," Martinez said.  "We have the ability to go beyond the first impression on the field."

Ezekiel Rangel made a big impact on the Blue team in the spring game with a touchdown catch and the game's lone interception.  Last season, he was a Second Team All-Region player at defensive back as a junior.  Rangel played free safety and also returned kickoffs.  This year, he could also be used more as a receiver.

"I'm hoping to play both sides," Rangel said.  "I prefer defense, but I like to help out where I can."

While Martinez would like to have a true platoon system, he feels it would spread the team too thin.  He said perhaps three or four of the Wildcats will play both ways.

On the defensive line, end Austin Dylong had five sacks (WCHS only posted stats in eight games last season).  Saturday, he was a part of the Blue team that won both the tire flip and a grueling obstacle course.  He said there is a strong bond among the D-Line unit as he enters his senior year.

"We always have so much fun," Dylong said.  "We're always having a good time.  I'm looking forward to us making a run towards the playoffs."

Other defensive players to watch this season are linebacker Kody Harris, defensive end Jalen Schaefer, and linebacker Robert Eblen.

In June, Willow Canyon's skill players will take part in the 7-on-7 competitions at Arizona State and Maricopa.  Maricopa will host the big 30-team event normally held in Surprise the past few years.

The following month, WCHS heads to Carlsbad, just outside of San Diego, for team camp.  It's a time of bonding and setting goals for the year.

"The biggest thing about camp is getting away from the distractions and focusing on being the kind of team we want to be for the season," Martinez said.  "Another big part is discovering the chemistry within the unit."

So, with pieces in place from last year, along with new fill-ins from JV and freshman squads, can the Wildcats show improvement again?  The team worked hard during the month of May and must continue to do the same in June, which will feature a combination of early morning and late afternoon training (on separate days). 

With the competition level ratcheted up compared to a normal practice Saturday night, there was some trash talk going back and forth and also some complaining when some coaches and players thought rules put in place for the event weren't being enforced.  Martinez took it as a teaching opportunity afterwards to remind the entire team that sometimes in games, there will be situations that are out of their control.  The important thing is how to handle it and get on with the next play.  During camp, the team will need to make sure it is all on the same page before they embark on this journey which formally begins with official practices on July 24.

"I definitely would like to think we are going to be over .500 for the first time since I've been here," Martinez said.

Let's see how the Wildcats could get there.  Remember, the 10-team schedule is identical to last year.  The three wins Willow Canyon had last season (Lake Havasu, Vista Grande, and Sierra Linda) are certainly attainable again.  Those three schools combined to go 6-24 a year ago.  Once again, the Lake Havasu game will be played in the afternoon on the last Saturday of August at the Skydome in Flagstaff.  WCHS would need to flip around the close losses in '16 against Sunnyslope and Shadow Ridge.  That would leave one more win to get to cross the .500 barrier.  Perhaps the Wildcats' best chance would be in the season opener at Maricopa.  Yes, it's a 60-mile road trip to the Gila River Valley (south of Phoenix), but last year's game was competitive.  After three quarters, it was scoreless before the Rams triumphed 20-6.  Willow Canyon would like to show better against their rivals in Surprise on the east side of the 303 (Valley Vista) than last year's 35-6 loss.  The other non-region game is against Kellis, which went 9-2 last season.  If Willow Canyon is going to get those six wins, it will probably come sooner than later.  The season's last two games are at home against Liberty and at Centennial, teams that were a combined 19-6 last season and probably better this year.

PHOTO CAPTION:  Willow Canyon's Ezekiel Rangel pulls in a pass with his bright green gloves during Saturday night's 7-on-7 Spring Game in Surprise.  Rangel was also a Second Team All-Region player as a free safety.  His Blue team defeated the Silver team, 38-14 on the night, which was a combination of lineman drills and 7-on-7 play.  The Wildcats will next play in the ASU passing league tournament on Monday, June 5 in Tempe.

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Willow Canyon: Raising the bar to raise money

Anython a game changer when it comes to fundraising


There are many "F" words when it comes to the game that we celebrate on these pages.  Don't worry, we keep it clean around here, and we also aren't talking about the grades on the transcripts that nobody wants to see.

It starts with the game (Football), and with the amount of time that players spend with teammates and coaches, trust develops among their new Family.  Friendships are made that can last for years beyond the playing Field and locker room.  There are the parents, siblings, and relatives, who also serve as Fans giving constant support.  It is also quite helpful to have Faith in something, whether it is in each other, the coaching staff, or in a higher power.

And then there's the "F" word that brings dread, but is vital to the support and growth of a high school program - Fundraising.

At Willow Canyon High School in Surprise, they've found a way to have some Fun with it.  For the second year, the Wildcats have utilized Anython to promote their lift-a-thon.

On Saturday, the final day of its three weeks of spring football, WCHS had its players go one by one onto the bench press.  The goal was to have each player load 70 percent of his weight onto the bar and attempt to do between 30 and 50 reps.

In the two weeks before the event, each player was able to create their own fundraising page through Anython.  These pages can be personalized and include a link for pledges to be given either as a flat sum or per rep (maximum of 50 in this particular case).  Social media helps spread awareness and parents and students can circulate the page address to friends and family on Facebook or Twitter.

Wildcats head coach Joe Martinez said this fundraiser goes beyond simply advertising football.

"It promotes the community around football," Martinez said.  "It helps develop and build momentum, not only as a celebration of the end of spring football, but to generate excitement towards the summer and keep it building towards the season."

In any type of youth or high school organization, raising funds is a necessity.  High schools aren't getting television money like Division I colleges or NFL franchises receive to foot the bills for their teams.  Funds raised in this endeavor for Willow Canyon are for equipment, new team gear, and scholarships for football camp in the summer.

It's also different than other fundraisers that teams do.  Progress can be monitored online showing the amount raised by each participant.  Athletics brings challenges and players like to not only rise up and face them personally, but battle with one another whether it be in pledges gained, or simply in how many reps they can do.

"The boys enjoy this fundraiser more," Willow Canyon Booster Club president Virginia Ward said.  "It drives competitiveness with them while making it easier for them to raise money for their program without having to ask for handouts."

Ward said this is the team's biggest fundraiser of the spring semester.  The team raised over $9,000 in the two-week window in which it was open. 

As opposed to selling items like cookie dough, candles, or popcorn, or simply begging for money, the weightlifting aspect is something the players are vested in.  During spring ball, the players were in the weight room three days a week.

"It adds a level of fun and makes people want to do it," freshman center Alex Lee said.  "It seemed like a goal for me to do it."

Defensive end Brody Tardy played football for the first time last year on the JV team, but has also played basketball and been around several fundraisers.

"It's easier than going door to door," Tardy said.  "It's probably the best one I've done so far."

Doing a lift-a-thon is a natural fit for a football team, and a healthy way to see which athletes can hoist the greatest amount of weight, while providing a financial boost for things they otherwise would be unable to afford.

Tardy agreed with the rivalry within fellow players to do well.

"You can see guys going back and forth and it adds a level of competition between us," Tardy said.

With this being the second year of the lift-a-thon, it bred a comfort level of knowing how it works and how to tinker with it.  Also, the longer a single fundraiser continues to be done, the more it gets instilled into the team's culture and tradition.

"Kids were more familiar with it," Martinez said of the second time around.  "Because of that, I think the performance and buy-in was higher than it was a year ago."

Anython isn't used solely for football.  It is an online platform for promoting virtually any kind of "thon" you can think of.  Basketball teams can run a hoop-a-thon, baseball squads a hit-a-thon, tennis players a serve-a-thon.  Best of all, it's a great way for a player to do something directly related to preparing themselves for their sport to earn money.

To make it count for your team, club, or group with Anython, get in touch with Kim, the local area director.  Her contact e-mail is

PHOTO CAPTION:  Freshman center Alex Lee works on his reps during the Willow Canyon lift-a-thon on Saturday inside the team's weight room.  The Wildcats combined the event to be on the same night as their 7-on-7 spring game and big man challenge.  After a month of 7-on-7 tournaments, a summer camp, and several workouts, Willow Canyon will begin its 13th season on August 18 at Maricopa HS.

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Firebirds turn page to new 'Chap'ter

Chaparral reloads with changes to coaching staff plus QB Miller

WEEKLY BLOG:  5/7/17

It's been six years since Chaparral last took home a gold ball, which doesn't seem like that long ago.  But a lot has changed since that victory over Cienega that brought a third straight Class 5A-II title in 2011.

The head coach of that team was Charlie Ragle, who left the following year to be the assistant director of operations (and later an assistant coach) at Arizona.  He is now the special teams and tight end coach at California.

After Ragle's departure, David Huffine was at the helm for two seasons followed by Conrad Hamilton, and current head coach Thomas Lewis.  Lewis was hired in April of 2016 and the former New York Giants receiver is entering his second year with the Firebirds.

Lewis was the receivers coach prior to being elevated to the head spot.  Before that, he had coaching stops at Oaks Christian (Calif.) and North Canyon.

In 2016, Chaparral finished 5-6 and had a losing record for the first time since 1994.  Changes have been made with Lewis' coordinators.

Kris Heavner, who has head coaching experience with Santa Rita and Horizon, is the new offensive coordinator.  In three seasons at Horizon, Heavner had a dynamic, fast-paced offense that liked to air it out.  In 2013, the Huskies averaged 50.6 points per game and went 8-3 before falling to Basha in a 43-42 shootout on a late field goal.  The following year, HHS finished 7-4 and scored more than 60 points three times.

Hamilton has returned to Chaparral as the defensive coordinator.  He was on the staff that won championships in 2009 and '10.  After a year of being the head coach at North Canyon, Hamilton was with the Firebirds from 2013-15.  Last year, he was the senior defensive analyst at Arizona State.

Last season, the offense averaged 31 points per game for the Firebirds along with 221 passing yards.  The problem was the defense as Chaparral allowed its opponent to score 40 or more in all five of its defeats.

Those results weren't expected by many observers from across the state.  In the Arizona Varsity Preseason Media Poll (of which I am a voting member), CHS was tabbed as the #3 team in the state in the new 5A conference.  On opening night, the Firebirds were shocked 45-20 by a Horizon team that was 0-10 in 2015.  Chaparral did respond from its 2-5 start with consecutive October victories over Paradise Valley, North Canyon, and Arcadia by a combined 154-38 count.  The Firebirds were ranked 18th in the final power points, but took the Northeast Valley Region automatic qualifying spot due to Notre Dame's probation.

Of all the movement that has been documented here over the past six seasons, perhaps the one most vital to the Firebirds' success in the next three seasons was a mere fourth grader in 2011.

Quarterback Jack Miller has transferred to Chaparral from Scottsdale Christian Academy where he was one of the nation's top freshman signal callers.  Last season, SCA finished 10-3 and played in the 2A quarterfinals.  Miller, who is 6-4 and 205 pounds, passed for 3,653 yards (281 yards per game) and 53 touchdowns.  He also rushed for eight more.

In addition to the coaching staff, and those that have checked out the Firebirds in spring ball, colleges have taken notice of Miller's talents.  In December and January, Miller landed his first offers from Louisiana Tech and Memphis.  Then last week, bigger lines were cast as he received offers from Arizona State, Arizona, and Florida State.

Another young member in the backfield with experience is running back Marqui Johnson.  He had five 100-yard games last season as a sophomore and finished with 970 yards and 11 touchdowns.  Also a threat as a receiver, Johnson grabbed a trio of TD passes.

Defensively, Hamilton will have a lot to rebuild up front as 21 of the 25 sacks the Firebirds registered in 2016 were by seniors.  Top returners for the Firebirds are free safety Dane Breslo (65 tackles) and linebacker Luke Shirvinski (56 tackles, 2.5 sacks).  Both will be seniors this fall.  Breslo had knee surgery (ACL), but is ahead of schedule and should return by the start of the regular season.

In the special teams, Chaparral kicker Anthony Mosharrafa had 17 touchbacks in his 26 attempts last season as a junior.  The Firebirds also have a strong leg in Tommy Christakos.  Christakos, who played some wide receiver on varsity as a freshman, has recently posted some videos on social media of him converting field goals from 65 and 68 yards.  He was limited to just three games last year with a knee injury.  He returned to play freshman basketball for CHS and is back to 100 percent now.  Next weekend he will be in Las Vegas for a national Chris Sailer kicking and punting camp.

With all of the changes, there are a few consistencies on the coaching staff.  Offensive line coach Paul Germinaro, his brother John Germinaro (quality control coach), and offensive assistant Trace Carroll are all entering their eighth seasons on the Firebird sidelines.  Carroll was a graduate of CHS in 2009.

After being caught off guard last season, it will be interesting to see what expectations on this year's team will be.  Compounding the situation is the fact that even the Firebirds don't know who their starting quarterback will be for the opener at Desert Mountain on Aug. 18.  And they won't know until earlier that week.

Miller's transfer will be a test of the new AIA rules handed down before the start of the 2016 season.  Players that transfer to another school within the state are required to sit for five games.  However, there is a hardship appeal that can be filed and Miller is expected to do so.

In an incredibly tragic story, a family friend of the Millers was attending a game at SCA last September to see the Eagles play.  He was struck by a car crossing Tatum Boulevard immediately adjacent to the school.  It has been reported that Miller has found it difficult to return to the SCA field so close to where the crash occurred.  The AIA Executive Board will rule on the appeal a few days before the Firebirds' first game.

So because of that, Chaparral must prepare two quarterbacks for the season during its preseason training camp.  After the Desert Mountain game, Chaparral will host Horizon (who should have the Firebirds' full attention).  Then after a bye week, the Firebirds will travel to the Los Angeles area to meet Valencia.  Valencia finished 10-3 last season and made the Division 2 CIF semifinals.  The Vikings return running back Moises Haynes, who rushed for 1,682 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior.  Back in Arizona the following Friday, Chaparral will host the team that knocked it out of the 2016 playoffs - 5A defending champion Williams Field.  A trip to Sunnyslope closes out the first half of the year.

If Miller has to sit the first five, his first eligible game would be Sept. 28 at home against Notre Dame Prep.  The Saints were 8-2 last season and presumably won't be holding a padded practice class this June (the reason for its probation).  The next one is also at home, but against an improved Liberty team, particularly on defense.  If the Firebirds can keep the ship afloat, the last three (Paradise Valley, North Canyon, and Arcadia) are the same as last year.  You have to think it will take a 7-3 record (or a region title) to make the playoffs for the 21st consecutive year.  A mark of 6-4 would put the 'Birds on the bubble.  So, if Miller has to sit, and Chaparral starts out 2-3, there will be little margin for error.

But, the good news is Miller will have two more seasons.  And there were a lot of sophomores on last year's roster, so Chaparral's chances of adding to its trophy case in Scottsdale look promising over the next three seasons.

PHOTO CAPTION:  The Chaparral press box is open for business as the camera operator and public address announcer get into position before a Friday night under the lights.  The Firebirds' first home game in 2017 will be on Aug. 25 against Horizon.  Chaparral has been playing on a synthetic turf field since 2007.

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