With just one regular-season game left on the high school football schedule, it’s time to take a look at what’s happened to those teams that were expected at the beginning of the season to most likely qualify to play in the new Open Division playoffs in the first year of testing the new format, designed to determine a ‘true’ state champion.
It doesn’t take long to see that the list of top contenders to be selected for the eight slots that will be available has taken a lot of left turns. A computer has been keeping track of stats throughout the season, taking into account all games played and strength of schedule for each team, to determine which eight teams among the big-school programs (6A, 5A, 4A conferences) will be placed in the championship bracket.
The selection of Chandler High School as the No. 1 team and Salpointe Catholic at No. 2 on the first Open Division rankings, released on the first day of October, are the only picks that have held through the nine games played so far. The rest of the Top 10 got scrambled, with some especially surprising results mixed in.
Sahuaro High‘s drop from the list was probably the most unexpected. The 4A Tucson school entered at No. 7, but the latest list doesn’t have the Cougars (7-2) listed among the top 16, much less the top eight, after losing two of their last three games.
The biggest jump was made by Scottsdale’s Saguaro High, another 4A program. The Sabercats (8-1) climbed from No. 7 to No. 3 and their rise has resolved an injustice claimed by Saguaro fans who felt their team should have been higher to begin with. The perennial power set a new state record by winning their last six straight state title games, playing in three different conferences during that time and defeating those six opponents by an average 23 points. And they are loaded with talent again this year.
Centennial HS (8-1), a 5A program, sits in 4th place, followed by a couple of 6A programs: Hamilton HS (8-1) in 5th and Pinnacle HS (7-2) in 6th. Centennial moved up a spot from the first listing, while Hamilton and Pinnacle each dropped two places.
No. 7 Horizon HS (8-1), another 5A program, moved up from No. 10.
The biggest surprise comes from No. 8 Higley High, which came out of nowhere as an unranked team on the initial ranking. After an 0-2 start the 5A Knights have won six straight, averaging almost 50 points a game and outscoring those six opponents, 339-144.
Notre Dame Prep, a 5A program that began the rankings at No. 6 is clinging to a top-10 spot, using an 8-1 record to find a safe harbor at No. 9. And No. 10 is now occupied by Red Mountain HS (8-1), which moved up a couple of slots to slide into the top 10.
Horizon is in the most fragile position going into the season finale. The seventh-ranked Scottsdale team is at No. 7 and eligible for a spot in the eight-team bracket, but will have to play the final regular-season game without its best player. Quarterback Jake Martinelli went down in the Oct. 18 game against Cactus Shadows High School and his knee injury has been diagnosed as a torn anterior cruciate ligament, sidelining him for the playoffs as well. The senior has passed for 1,722 yards and 16 touchdowns this season, and added another 729 yards rushing and 16 more TDs.
The immediate beneficiary of Horizon’s misfortune could turn out to be Chaparral High School. The Firebirds pulled off a stunning 28-21 upset of Pinnacle last week and had hoped that win would propel them into inclusion in the top eight teams. However, the team whose only losses this season were to No. 5 Hamilton and No. 3 Saguaro made it only as far as No. 11.
If Horizon, without Martinelli, can’t win its finale tonight against Scottsdale’s Desert Mountain HS, and there’s other movement at the top of the rankings, Saguaro might just squeeze into a spot in the Open Division brackets. Of course, the Sabercats will have to beat a good Mesquite High team tonight that is 7-2 and has won six of its last seven games, the only misstep a two-point loss to Salpointe.
That will take another big win like the one they pulled off against Pinnacle. Only, getting this one will be more difficult.