There are 57 teams, only 16 playoff spots and one school that has won a state championship in the past three years.
Welcome to Division III football, where a lot of schools are feeling a renewed sense of pride that this fall could be their year to stand among the best.
Chandler Seton, among the 57, is the last school to win a state title – in 2012 when it was in Division IV.
It’s going to be hard to make the playoffs, but, for a change, Laveen Cesar Chavez and Paradise Valley are in the state championship conversation. There is no Scottsdale Saguaro, Gilbert Williams Field and Queen Creek taking center stage week after week in Division III. They have moved up to D-II.
“I’m just glad we don’t have Mountain Pointe (on our schedule),” said Phoenix North coach Bernie Busken, whose team went 1-9 in his first year last season while playing in Division I. “We are excited to do our best, and we should see great improvement.”
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Cesar Chavez also was in D-I last year, winning its last four games after dropping its first six against some of the state’s biggest beasts. Now, the excitement has never been greater in the Jim Rattay coaching era at the southwest Valley school.
Phoenix North Canyon has that same hope of major improvement after going winless last year in Division I, especially with two of the top players in the state – wide receiver/defensive back John Okwoli and tackle Austin Jackson – returning.
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Among the three big-school divisions, D-III appears to be the most wide open, although some coaches feel the Arizona Interscholastic Association can engrave Goodyear Desert Edge’s name on the championship trophy after it won its appeal to move down from II.
Desert Edge lost to Queen Creek in the Division II final in 2012 by a late safety.
“When our appeal went through, everyone was talking about ‘Desert Edge this, Desert Edge that,’ ” Desert Edge coach Rich Wellbrock said. “Six months later, we’re in the discussion again, back where we were the last six years, just in the discussion.
“There are 10 or 11 playoff teams still from Division III. It’s not like, we’re suddenly the team. There are programs that have been solid programs, like (Glendale) Cactus and (Peoria) Sunrise Mountain.”
There is mostly a sense of relief that Saguaro is out of D-III.
Saguaro won seven state championships between 2007 and 2014.
With Saguaro, Williams Field and Queen Creek all out, the power in Division III might have shifted strongly to the West Valley, where Desert Edge, Cactus, Sunrise Mountain, Peoria, Cesar Chavez and even Buckeye Verrado all have a shot.
Tucson Catalina Foothills opens the season Aug. 21 at Desert Edge.
Catalina Foothills coach Jeff Scurran believes Arizona has “huge problems right now with our structure of competition.”
It starts with Division I, he feels, where there are only 17 schools after the AIA in the spring allowed for schools to appeal up and down, using a different set of criteria, such as free and reduced lunch programs and success rate, to place them.
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Several schools lobbied their way down from D-I to D-II, where there are 35 teams. A domino effect began.
It turned Division III into a midway of teams not ready for D-II and out of D-I’s league.
“Perhaps they could do the same by appealing to D-III, where their wins would no doubt be easier,” Scurran said. “In the end, it all comes down to wanting to win any way you can, even if it means fudging to avoid better competition.”
Phoenix Moon Valley coach Sam Jacobs saw his Rockets have their best season in Division III last year. He is hoping to use that as momentum, remaining in the division, knowing there still will be strong competition, especially with Paradise Valley joining the division after winning 10 games and reaching the quarterfinals in Division II last season with the same dynamic duo – quarterback Daniel Bridge-Gadd and receiver Jacob Brown – back.
“I definitely feel that the division is more wide open,” Jacobs said. “That being said, there are a handful of teams that still make up the top, teams like Desert Edge, Paradise Valley and Cesar Chavez.
“You also still have the traditional football powers like Cactus, Tempe, (Tucson) Sabino and Peoria. It will also be very interesting to see how Sunnyslope, North Canyon, (Cave Creek) Cactus Shadows and (Scottsdale) Notre Dame all do with the move down from Division II.”
With 57 teams, there could be 7-3 teams that don’t make the playoffs.
“The margin for error to get in the playoffs is going to be razor thin,” Paradise Valley coach Greg Davis said. “At the same time, it is fun to know that if you do make the playoffs, it is very well-deserved.”
It revs up the competition, Jacobs believes.
But there is hope for most now that the trophy can’t be given out before the first kickoff.
“The major difference this year from last year is that we could have played the game of our lives and still not beaten Williams Field or Saguaro,” Jacobs said. “This year, we still need to play our best, but I think we will have a puncher’s chance against the top teams.”
Reach Obert at email@example.com or 602-460-1710. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.