As the gap between the haves and have-nots in high school sports continues to grow, it becomes increasingly difficult to identify a team that will come out of nowhere. Usually, the same teams win and the same teams lose, year in and year out.
But the reclassification process initiated by the Arizona Interscholastic Association has given more programs a chance to be competitive on Friday nights. So here are 10 “surprise” teams to look for in the 2015 season. They probably won’t win a state championship, but at some point during the year, they’ll make us take notice.
RELATED: 2015 high school football preview
ALL 10 PUHSD TEAMS
One of the best things the AIA did in its reclassification process was put all 10 Phoenix Union High School District teams in the same section in Division III. That simple and long overdue move will enable teams like North, South Mountain and others to be competitive week in and week out. After years of being on the wrong end of 63-6 scores, that will be a very pleasant surprise.
The drop from Division II to Division III will help Cactus Shadows, which finished 3-7 last year. The section placement in Section III doesn’t hurt, either. Paradise Valley is probably the class of the division but there’s no other powerhouse program. Coach Mike Hudnutt has to identify a new quarterback, but the program has been strong in the past and should find its footing again in D-III.
How can the defending Division II champs be considered a “surprise” team? Well, Centennial is now in Division I and the prevailing opinion is that it will take some time to compete with teams like Chandler, Chandler Hamilton and Phoenix Mountain Pointe. I’m not so sure about that. Coach Richard Taylor has arguably one of the best offensive lines in the state and a terrific quarterback in Isaac Steele. Don’t be surprised if Centennial is a Final Four team come November.
The move to Division II will certainly help Desert Mountain’s fortunes. So will the hiring of Kurt Warner as offensive coordinator. Here’s guessing his expertise might help Desert Mountain’s passing game just a bit. So will a schedule that now includes teams like Yuma, St. Mary’s and Apollo rather Chaparral, Desert Ridge and Brophy.
Mountain Pointe’s emergence has pushed Desert Vista aside but Dan Hinds’ club is poised for a return to relevancy after a combined 7-13 record the last two seasons. Desert Vista returns nine starters on offense and 10 on defense. If senior quarterback Alex Farina has improved as a passer – Desert Vista threw for just 1,279 yards as a team last year – the Ahwatukee Bowl will again be one of the most anticipated games of the season.
Maricopa finished 4-6 last year but two of its losses were by four points or less to Williams Field and Tucson Canyon del Oro. Most importantly, Maricopa returns senior quarterback Aaron Owens, who threw for 2,658 yards and 25 touchdowns last season. The schedule is much more favorable this year, so a 7-win season isn’t out of the question.
Another team that, like Desert Mountain, should greatly benefit from the move into Division II. Mesa lost some key seniors from last year’s 3-7 club, but Scott Hare knows how to coach and the section placement with Dobson, Higley, Skyline, Westwood and Williams Field gives Mesa a chance.
Chalk this one up to coaching. Paul Moro won 13 state championships at Pinetop-Lakeside Blue Ridge and had a successful first season at Poston Butte, going 7-4. Now, with that awkward first year under his belt, a growing community and one of the state’s top running backs in Brandon Hatfield (1,498 yards in 2014), Poston Butte could emerge as a power in Division II.
No team may be poised for a bigger comeback than Red Mountain, which finished 3-8 last year while playing a brutal schedule and, in the playoff game against Chandler, starting a freshman quarterback in Lance Lawson. Lawson, who ran for 98 yards against Chandler, is back and coach Ron Wisneiwski believes this will be his most talented offensive line. That’s a combination that could produce double the amount of wins, if not more.
It’s hard to label a team that went 8-4 last year and 5-0 in section play a “surprise.” But Winslow could be ready to make the jump to championship contender in Division IV after losing in the quarterfinals last year. It returns three running backs who combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns and a productive senior quarterback in Ray Velez.