There have been two huge upsets in these Division I football playoffs — Peoria Centennial over Chandler Hamilton in the quarterfinals, and Mesa Desert Ridge over Chandler in the semifinals — sending me down memory lane.
Here’s my list of the biggest state football upsets since 1969 in the biggest division:
Phoenix Central 14, Phoenix St. Mary’s 7, 1969 championship
The Knights were going for their third straight state championship with a team that rebounded after losing the opener to Tucson Salpointe. The Knights, playing with heavy hearts after an assistant coach died just before the season began, didn’t lose another game with strong leadership, led by senior all-state safety Pat Farrell and a one-eyed quarterback, sophomore Tom Baker. But Central came in with a blitzing defense that caught the Knights off guard.
Phoenix St. Mary’s 28, Tempe Marcos de Niza 14, 1974 semifinals
Marcos de Niza was undefeated and loaded with athletes, including tight end Jimmy Moore. They were among the top 20 teams in the nation that year. Ron Cosner was the coach. Speedy Hart was a stud receiver who intercepted two passes in that game for the Knights. They tied it up just before halftime, then took a lead shortly after halftime. St. Mary’s held onto a one touchdown lead until the last two minutes, when the Knights scored on a defensive touchdown by Joe Kerwin. The Knights also were undefeated, but lost the next week to Phoenix Camelback, a team led by option quarterback Mark Whipple (now head coach at Massachusetts), and up-and-coming coach Jesse Parker, 22-20, in the state championship game. The Knights that year had running back David Mitchell and Hart, who both ended up at Notre Dame.
St. Mary’s 24, Tempe McClintock 7, 1984 semifinals
McClintock figured to roll to the title, behind quarterback Kent Kiefer and backs Cleveland Colter Jr., and Art Greathouse. But St. Mary’s, led by quarterback Steve Belles and junior running back Reggie McGill, had other plans. A tenacious defense never led the Chargers’ big-play athletes get going and Belles managed a masterful game. The next week, the Knights capped a championship season with a 31-14 win over Tucson Sahuaro and Belles was chosen The Arizona Republic Player of the Year.
Arizona’s best high school football programs:
Glendale Apollo 17, McClintock 16, 1985 semifinals
This was considered an even more shocking upset than the previous season, because Apollo entered the state playoffs with five losses and McClintock was motivated by that 1984 state semifinal loss. And Colter was back. But Apollo, coached by Rudy Pacheco, played great defense and McClintock was hurt by penalties that helped the Hawks shock the state. The next week, St. Mary’s beat Apollo 11-7 for the title, a week after it had edged Sahuaro 10-9.
Tucson Sabino 21, Phoenix Desert Vista 10, 1999 semifinals
Desert Vista was ranked among the top 10 teams in the country, behind senior QB John Rattay, who had led the Thunder to its first state championship as a junior. Desert Vista came in with a 27-game winning streak and figured to make it 28, before a Jeff Scurran-coached Sabino team showed up with a defensive game plan that totally derailed Desert Vista’s potent offense. The following week, Mesa Mountain View ended Sabino’s dream season,
Glendale Mountain Ridge 38, Paradise Valley 24, 2004 first round
Paradise Valley was the No.1 seed in the playoffs. Mountain Ridge was the No.16 and final seed. But leave it to Belles to pull out an upset. Belles was head coach of a scrappy, resilient Mountain Ridge team that the previous year lost to No. 15-seed Mesa Red Mountain as the No.2 seed in the first round of the playoffs. That was the motivating drive in 2004. Paradise Valley had bruising fullback/linebacker Matt Clapp, but Mountain Ridge made the big plays to pull off arguably the most stunning first-round playoff upset of the 2000s. Mountain Ridge reached the state final that year, only to lose to Chandler Hamilton 31-7.
Phoenix Desert Vista 14, Mesa Red Mountain 7, 2007 semifinals
Some might question if Desert Vista’s 17-7 quarterfinal win over Mesa Mountain View was a bigger upset. Desert Vista climbed through the playoffs as the No.11 seed, knocking off 2-seed Red Mountain a week after eliminating 3-seed Mountain View. Desert Vista caught fire late in the season with a suffocating defense, but it finally ran out of upsets in the final, losing to Brophy Prep 34-21.
Mesa 37, Red Mountain 10, 2009 first round
Take your pick of Mesa upsets that year. It was the No. 11 seed and the underdog in each round. But coach Kelley Moore’s win over Red Mountain not only was shocking in the way the Jackrabbits dominated the No. 6 seed, but it was the last game of coach Jim Jones’ coaching career at Red Mountain. His coaching contract was not renewed after that loss. Mesa turned that win into a magical ride that ended in a 35-0 loss to Hamilton in the final.
Desert Ridge 38, Chandler 35, 2010 first round
OK, this was before Chandler’s defense got really good. But it was QB Brett Hundley’s last game for Chandler and the Wolves had Paul Perkins at running back. Hundley never got a chance to punch it in at the end, as the Wolves tried to power it in and was stopped short of the goal line. It was the greatest win since Jeremy Hathcock had taken over the Desert Ridge program. Desert Ridge was a 10 seed that year that ended up losing to Hamilton 21-13 in the championship game.
Arizona’s best high school football coaches:
Desert Vista 45, Hamilton 19, 2011 championship
Desert Vista was a respected 3 seed. But Hamilton was in the midst of a dynasty, riding a 53-game winning streak and a run of three consecutive state championships, before getting dominated by Desert Vista in its first state title since the 14-0 1998 season. Hamilton had never lost so badly in the state playoffs. Desert Vista jumped on Hamilton early, built a 21-0 lead in the second quarter and never let up, as QB Hunter Rodriguez was efficient, the running game solid (led by Michael Arredondo), and the defense stalwart. But Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds wouldn’t have called it an upset. After all, his team lost only one game that year.
Centennial 34, Hamilton 23, 2015 quarterfinals
Centennial, playing in Division I for the first time after capturing its fourth Division II title last season, was down 23-7 and looking out of it in the final quarter. But with eight minutes to go, the Coyotes turned it on. With QB Isaac Steele leading the offense, special teams making a huge play that resulted in a touchdowns and the defense laying the hammer, they scored 27 unanswered points and gave Hamilton its first state quarterfinal loss since 2000.
Desert Ridge, 24, Chandler 21, 2015 state semifinals
Chandler was a top 25 team in the nation, and hadn’t lost since August when it got derailed by defending national champion Las Vegas Bishop Gorman. But Desert Ridge never doubted. It’s defense went to work after the 60-39 loss to Chandler in September. With Jalen Harris, D.J. Davidson and Andre Elmore leading a strong front line, and Stephan Gomez intercepting Oregon State-commit Mason Moran twice in the final quarter, the Jaguars shocked the No.1 team in the state.
Reach Obert at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-460-1710. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.