Editor’s note: The next in a series of monthlong stories previewing the 2014 high-school football season. Today, we look at teams that could surprise fans this season.
Bernie Busken knows what it’s like to be under the radar.
Before making a name for himself by winning three state championships at Mesa Mountain View in the late 1990s, Busken had a knack for taking struggling, off-the-map football programs — both in Arizona and his native Oklahoma — and turning them into something respectable.
Never has he faced a larger undertaking than he does currently, at Phoenix North. The team won a combined four games the past two years, and has only one winning season since 2005.
But Busken has seen this before — particularly, he said, in his first head-coaching job in Oklahoma, which featured a downtrodden team with dwindling support for the program.
It didn’t take long for that to change under Busken’s watch.
“By the end of the season,” he said, “people didn’t particularly want to play us.”
He knows no one will expect much from North, at least initially.
But he’s perfectly fine working quietly for now, in an attempt to restore the program to the relative greatness of 10 years ago, when North was a combined 20-4 in 2004 and 2005.
“There isn’t any reason (other teams) would pay attention to us right now,” Busken said. “And that’s OK. Our whole thing is to try to get a little bit better, and try to put a little pride back in our program.”
Fountain Hills is another program that could turn some heads this season.
It’s easy to get overlooked in that part of the state, with teams like Scottsdale Saguaro and Scottsdale Chaparral dominating headlines.
But Fountain Hills has the pieces in place to compete in 2014.
It returns a quarterback, senior Luke McDermott, who completed more than 65 percent of his passes and threw for 2,630 yards last season.
Two of his top receivers, seniors Sam Stoor and Jacob DeGroote, are also back after each catching more than 40 balls a year ago.
And although Fountain Hills has been under .500 the past two seasons, it turned in winning records the previous three years under coach Jim Fairfield, so a winning tradition isn’t very far in the past.
Another team getting some preseason buzz is Mesa Skyline.
Angelo Paffumi is at the helm for his third year, a time when many coaches really begin to find a rhythm at a new school.
He’ll have some holes to fill, particularly on defense, where three of his top tacklers are gone from 2013.
But his team should be hungry after getting a taste of the playoffs last season, when it was eliminated in the first round by eventual Division I semifinalist Chandler. In the West Valley, Surprise Valley Vista has a chance to make some noise after finishing 5-5 in 2013.
Coach Josh Sekoch also is in his third season, and he will preside over a senior-heavy team with nearly all of its top skill players back from a year ago.
Quarterback Damian Alarcon threw for 1,923 yards and 20 touchdowns last season, and Valley Vista returns its top four rushers, so look for it to improve on its 25.6 points-per-game scoring average from 2013.
High school football preseason preparations:
Mountain Pointe High School’s starting quarterback Garvin Alston warms up before football practice at the Phoenix school on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014. The team is gearing up for its Aug. 23 season opener in Las Vegas against Sparks, NV Reed High School.