There are often interesting side stories to winning high school state championships. This year in Arizona, there are five of them being played out on the football field, from the smallest to the largest conference.
Three of them will take place this weekend, but a couple of the most interesting, involving the small-school programs, have already entered the record books.
Thatcher High School finished the 11-game regular-season schedule undefeated and then rolled through the state tournament, outscoring their opponents in the three playoff games, 120-25, to capture the 2A state championship.
The 35-12 victory over rival Eager’s Round Valley High School, a team they had already beaten once in the regular season, capped a 14-0 record that marks the first time in 18 years that an Eagles team has gone unbeaten. Thatcher also becomes the first 2A school to win three straight state titles since the early ’90s when St. Johns High School pulled off a three-peat.
And in the 3A playoffs, Northwest Christian School in Phoenix used a triple-overtime victory to leave behind a memory that will last a lifetime for players and fans. The Crusaders ran their final record to 13-1 with a 40-37 win over Yuma Catholic, a team that had handed them their only set-back, in the second game on the schedule. Without that six-point loss, NW Christian would have gone undefeated.
The overtimes in the title game kept fans on the edge of their seats. Regulation ended on a one-yard touchdown dive into the end zone by Zack Heidel in the final 10 seconds to tie the game at 27 and send it into the first OT.
Each team scored in the first overtime period to keep the drama alive. In the third OT, it looked like Yuma Catholic was going to win its first state championship since winning back-to-back D-V titles back in 2013 and 2014. But a fumbled snap on the one-yard line that was recovered by the Crusaders crushed the Shamrocks’ threat.
The Crusaders’ hopes were revived when they kicked a field goal in the third overtime period to take a 37-34 lead. But NWC answered with a Easton Meier-to-Dusty Inness eight-yard touchdown pass to pull out the victory, the school’s first since the Eagles won the 2012 D-V title.
A couple of other twists make this championship story even more special. Dusty Inness is the son of Eagles’ coach Dave Inness and made the biggest play of the year as he closed out his senior season. And, to boot, he helped his dad win his 100th game at the school.
But, hold on…there’s more to come.
On Saturday, Saguaro High will go for its sixth straight state championship and 12th in the program history of the Scottsdale school, which plays in the 4A conference — and probably should have been moved up years ago. The beginning of a dynasty began in 2010 when John Sanders coached the program to back-to-back titles, and then picked up again two years later under current coach, Jason Mohns, to begin its string of five consecutive titles.
Tomorrow night, top-ranked Tucson’s Salpointe Catholic (13-0) will try to become the first in-state school to beat the Sabercats in several years. Saguaro has strung together 45 consecutive wins over local teams.
The next night, the 5A title game will feature a couple of undefeated teams in No. 1 Centennial High and No. 3 Notre Dame Prep, which had to beat No. 2 seed Williams Field High School to get into the championship game.
Centennial has won its last 17 games, going back to last season when it rolled through the playoffs to win the 2017 title. The Coyotes have been a dominant force this season, outscoring their opponents, 557-77 and holding offenses to under 70 rushing yards a game.
Undefeated seasons are nothing new to Notre Dame, which will complete a second straight perfect regular season record with a win over Centennial. Their only blemish in the last 27 games was a loss in last year’s state final when they got beat by Centennial.
That makes it a rematch for the 5A title — as well as a rematch for the 6A title, where No. 1 Chandler High will meet sixth-seeded Perry Hgh for a second straight year for the state championship.
Perry had to take down No. 2 Pinnacle High in the semis to get another shot at the Wolves, while No. 5 Highland High took Chandler into overtime before the Wolves pulled off a two-point conversion in overtime for their 36-35 semifinal victory to avoid a major upset.
Not only will the revenge factor make this a good one, but fans will likely get treated to a display of offensive fireworks. The two teams combined for 91 points in last year’s title game, with Chandler winning the 49-42 shootout.