Arizona’s best Division VI teams made the 12-team playoffs, which start tonight. There is no argument there.
Duncan coach Eldon Merrell believes so.
"You could make an argument for moving them around a bit, including the top 4 – throw the names in a hat and draw them out – you could be justified any way you place them," he said.
The first round begins tonight as the bottom eight teams battle for a spot in the second round. The top 4 seeds — No. 1 Scottsdale Prep, No. 2 Mogollon, No. 3 Pima, No. 4 Joy Christian — have first-round byes.
NO. 8 VALLEY LUTHERAN vs. NO. 9 DUNCAN (at Sunnyslope HS 6 p.m.)
Last season, Duncan was the last team to make the playoffs with a 4-4 record. Now at 6-2, Merrell believes his team is talented enough to handle what the postseason may bring.
"For us, Valley Lutheran is a tough draw," he said. "We both like to run the ball and wear the other team down by having our offense on the field. It will be a game determined by who can make the big defensive plays and who can sustain drives on the offensive side. I would like to think that our game would be the game to watch in the first round.
"Our team is doing well. We have played well the past two games and are pretty rested and fresh this week. The extra day gives us some great opportunities to get ready for a team we have never met before. … Keys to a win? Stay healthy and control the ball."
Quarterback Logan Jones has thrown six touchdowns but Duncan’s running attack is where it will rely. Junior Cale Merrell has rushed for 1,838 yards and 24 touchdowns.
But Eldon Merrell also said what likes most about his team is how it is developing more weapons as the season progresses.
Sopohmore Laramie Wolf has 394 yards and five touchdowns this season. DJ Burrell has caught five touchdowns. On defense, Casper Johns leads the team with 7 1/2 sacks.
Valley Lutheran (6-2) is also a run-oriented team. Ketah Watson has rushed for 996 yards and 16 touchdowns. Sam Gabrielson has eight rushing touchdowns and Alex Riedel has six rushing touchdowns. Troy Parsons has caught all four of the team’s passing touchdowns. Defensively, sophomore Kyron Newton has a team-leading five interceptions.
NO. 5 JOSEPH CITY vs. NO. 12 ST. DAVID (at Josephy City HS 7 p.m.)
Joseph City (7-1) lost just once this season, to Mogollon. Josephy City will give the ball to 6-foot-3 senior Chance Rush as many times as possible. Sophomore Connor Neal should figure in the attack as well. Junior receiver John Wyatt is the team’s main target and has the speed to break for a long touchdown run. Quarterback Jacob Fields has improved throughout the season.
St. David is the lone 5-3 team to make the postseason. Quarterback Shane Bradford has kept defenses honest while throwing 10 touchdowns. But Jacob Mayberry is the main threat. He has rushed for 1,227 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. Jeremy Stafford has caught half of Bradford’s touchdowns. Junior Val Allred has been the defensive secondary’s ball hawk with five interceptions.
NO. 6 MESA PREP vs. NO. 11 SALOME (at Gilbert Christian HS 6 p.m)
Mesa Prep (7-1) has gone the way Nick Staloch has played. He has passed for 1,999 yards and 29 touchdowns.
"Our passing game is very good right now," Mesa Prep coach Amy Arnold said. "We believe we have the best quarterback in the league and our receivers are getting open and excelling with yards after the catch. Our pass defense has been solid and not too many teams have had success with the sweep."
"We are focused on attacking in the first quarter and setting the tone in the first minute of the game, both offensively and defensively. Our two-point conversions have been a headache all season but we’ve added the point-after-touchdown to our arsenal, which I’m happy about. If our offensive line can sustain their blocks, I believe our receivers will get open. I’m also looking for a more significant running game."
Mesa Prep has a nice stable of receivers to attack Salome (6-2). Jackson Ventrella has 57 catches, Junior Paul Varner leads the team with 718 yards and 11 touchdowns.
On defense, junior Cameron Labban has a team-leading seven interceptions. And senior David MacGranaky-Quaye leads the team with five sacks.
Arnold said in the playoffs, it all comes down to eliminating mistakes and turnovers.
"If we can prevent those," she said, "we will put ourselves in a good position for victory."
NO. 7 BAGDAD vs. NO. 10 GILBERT CHRISTIAN (at Bagdad HS 7 p.m.)
Bagdad (6-2) was down 16-7 at the half vs. favored Valley Lutheran last week but then scored 14 unanswered points to win. It’s a victory that has given Bagdad confidence heading into the postseason.
"I like the way our team is playing, they are getting it done together and battling through adversity," Bagdad coach Dalton Mills said. "We know it will always be a tough game (vs. Valley Lutheran), but what people don’t realize is that we traditionally win that game and our kids expect to win that game."
"I like out perseverance and attitude coming off a tough loss in week 7 to Joe City, A game where we turned the ball over way too many times despite battling to the end."
Mills said the key to a win vs. Gilbert Christian (6-2) is to control the ball.
"They are an extremely fast team, but do not have a lot of size," Mills said of Gilbert Christian.
The Brothers Jeans, quarterback Kendall and running back Casey, lead Bagdad’s offense. The team’s top receivers are James Loveall and Kody Low. Justin Pacheco is the leader of the defense. And kicker Damian Jauregui, who kicked a 50-yard field goal earlier this season, s always a threat.
Gilbert Christian’s Trey Gass has passed for 1,250 yards and 16 touchdowns. He also has five rushing touchdowns, tied for the team lead with Andrew Sherman and Trae Still. Saile Daimwood is Gass’ main target, the junior has caught eight touchdowns. Senior Jake Curtner is the leader of the defense with 79 tackles.