Best in the West: Championship Previews 2019

The time has come to write your name in history. The State Championships are here, and two West Valley schools will have an opportunity to take home a title.

While both games will be great contests, they unfortunately are at the same time and day at different sides of the valley.

 

6A State Championship: #7 Liberty (Peoria) vs #1 Red Mountain (Mesa)

It’s been five years since Liberty worked their way to a state championship. They came up short against sister school, Centennial in the 5A Championship in 2014. In his fifth season as head coach, Mark Smith enters his first title game after taking over following that 2014 loss.

Both teams have senior-heavy talent, and it’s time for that Liberty backfield to shine. A slew of great runners has shared the rushing duties such as Jace Accurso, Isaiah Pittman, Joseph Forney, and freshman, Zaccheus Cooper amoung others.  While Accurso will likely still be the ‘third and short’ running back, expect Pittman and Accurso to mostly play defense where the two have combined for 22 tackles for loss, seven sacks, and five fumble recoveries.

This team loves to run the ball offensively. Senior track star and quarterback, Jonah Guevara, has five rushing touchdowns in the tournament but is versatile in knowing how the offense needs to work. While the team averages nearly 250 rush yards per game and has 39 rushing TDs, the Lions emphasized the passing game against Desert Vista with Guevara throwing for 235 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions. Even with one of the most talented backfields in the state, receiving options like Carter Hill and Gavin Guy can pick a defense apart.

The key for Liberty to outmatch the talent on Red Mountain is to stop giving up free yardage. The Lions have stunted drives all year long with penalties that force the Lions to punt in situations where they could have scored. This is a championship game against one of the best teams in the state, giving up free yards is equal to giving up a championship. While Liberty was able to hold off a late charge to beat Desert Vista in the semifinals 33-30, penalties nearly gave the game away. Desert Vista shut out the Lions 16-0 in the final quarter of the game. Allowing Red Mountain to do the same would virtually end the Lions championship hopes.

It’s been a ‘revenge party’ of sorts for Red Mountain this postseason. Every week of the Open Division Playoff rankings, no matter how good of a win the Mountain Lions had the previous week, RMHS was always one of the first teams left out of the Open Eight rankings. Even with their lone loss all year came by one point in 4OT to Perry early in the year, that trend continued throughout the season until Chaparral leapfrogged over them to claim the final spot in the Open Division Playoff.

It seems like the mentality of Red Mountain is if they weren’t allowed in the Open, they’ll just have to dominate the 6A Conference. Head coach, Mike Peterson now has his team up to a 12-1 record in 2019, as Red Mountain has outscored opponents by nearly 20 points in their three 6A Tournament games with 16 touchdowns in the tournament total on the ground. Three different senior Mountain Lions have racked up double-digit rushing touchdowns on the season with a team total of 51. Their versatility in the backfield also makes receiver, Jared Wilson, tough to stop on a good play-action pass. Wilson leads RMHS in receiving TDs with 12 and nearly 900 reception yards on the year.

While Red Mountain is coming off a 21-9 statement win over Queen Creek, senior quarterback, Hyrum Boren, threw a season-high, three interceptions, and only 57 passing yards. While those mistakes weren’t enough for Queen Creek to capitalize on, if Liberty can force Boren far below his average of 167 pass yards per game, that could keep Liberty in the game. The Lions have picked off a quarterback nearly once per game, including four total interceptions by junior, Shane Pitts. Even if they Lions tame the RMHS pass game, they still have to stop Boren on his rush game as well as, Ty McElroy, who rushed for 178 yards in the semifinal against Queen Creek.

An interesting tidbit about this game is that both teams are led in tackles defensively by a couple of rising sophomores. Liberty’s Jax Stam has totaled 93 tackles this season while Red Mountain’s Parker McClure has racked up 106. Stam has five tackles for loss and a pair of sacks on the season. Stam also leads in the experience category playing most snaps his freshman year.

Liberty’s lone title appearance came in 2014 in a loss to Centennial and looks for their first state title in school history. Red Mountain’s last state championship came in 2001, taking the 5A crown in back-to-back seasons.

Both teams are more than capable when it comes to pressuring the quarterback. Liberty has three different players with five sacks each while Red Mountain has 17.5 sacks alone through senior, Tre Smith. The Lions will face off against the Mountain Lions with kickoff at 7:00 pm at Sun Devil Stadium on Friday, Dec. 6.

 

4A State Championship: #6 Mesquite (Gilbert) vs #4 Desert Edge (Goodyear)

With the removal of Salpointe Catholic and Saguaro from the 4A Tournament, the 4A Conference has been the most exciting conference to watch. In the quarterfinals and semifinals, the average margin of victory was just four points if you remove Cactus’ 34-7 win over Peoria. Desert Edge and Mesquite have had some of the closest calls in the tournament and now collide in to face off for the championship.

Desert Edge scored a game-winning field goal to outlast Casa Grande in the quarterfinals and only took a seven-point victory against Gila Ridge in the semifinals. Mesquite arguably had the toughest road to the championship in terms of close games. Against Marcos de Niza and Cactus, the Wildcats only won by a single point in both games.

Desert Edge has locked in their second ten-win season in coach, Jose Lucero’s tenure, the first coming in Lucero’s first year at the head of the program in 2016. Both teams are far more than capable of throwing the ball with two of the most talented young QBs in the state. This will be a quarterback battle that everyone will want to see as sophomore, Adryan Lara, battles junior, Ty Thompson.

Standing in the Scorpion corner listed at 6’1”, 170 lbs, Adryan Lara has been throwing lasers all year for Desert Edge, racking up 39 touchdowns and averaging nearly 300 pass yards per game. Receivers Jihad Marks and Andrew Patterson have combined for 28 touchdowns and both have accumulated over 1,000 receiving yards. They both have reception plays of at least 89 yards as well. Lara has an offer from Arizona along with Iowa State and Oregon State as a sophomore.

In the Wildcat corner, listed at 6’4”, and 210 lbs, hotshot junior, Ty Thompson has totaled 42 touchdowns this season and is only 312 yards from reaching 4,000 passing yards on the season. Thompson has thrown for more than 400 yards on three different occasions this year and has led his team to a 10-3 season so far. The junior has spread the love this season with five different receivers picking up 400 or more receiving yards on the year. Thompson has offers from both Arizona and Arizona State along with schools such as Boston College, Cal, and Iowa among others as a junior.

The key for Desert Edge in this title game is to get out to an early lead. Digging out of a hole hasn’t been the strong suit this year for Mesquite. Cactus missed their opportunity to Mesquite down early but only held a 7-6 lead at halftime against the Wildcats in the semifinal and fell 28-27. As long as Ty Thompson has the lead in sight, Mesquite can win the ballgame. Defensive junior stars for Desert Edge, RJ Roberts, and Jacorie Stokes are the head of the team in tackles for loss and look to help contain Thompson to let the DEHS offense find a rhythm. The top 11 tacklers for DEHS are all juniors except for sophomore, Cris Contreras. Myles Hobbs leads the team alongside Steven Ortiz in tackles. It’s also worth mentioning that Mikey Ortiz will be licking his chops in search of his fifth interception of the year to add on to his 112 INT yards on the year.

If the Scorpions can put a stop to Ty Thompson’s air raid and force Mesquite to run the football, DEHS will be in good shape. While Mesquite running back, Chris Hintze, is a great talent, making Mesquite even just one-and-a-half dimensional will be beneficial to making defensive stops manageable. Hintze is the only Wildcat with over 1,000 total yards besides Thompson.

Part of the defense’s job to get Desert Edge ahead early will be shutting down senior receivers, Jordan Wollangk and Jacob Walker. Wollangk is near 1,000 receiving yards on the season and a great go-to for Thompson. Walker, though, is the guy Thompson trusts to get into the endzone. While he has fewer yards than Wollangk, he leads the team with 17 TDs, eight more than any other player on the team.

In the semifinal against Cactus, Walker went bigtime receiving for 144 yards over nine catches for two touchdowns. Thompson threw three touchdowns and rushed in a fourth over the goalline totaling over 400 yards for himself.

Desert Edge looks for their second state title since 2015 when they claimed the 5A Championship against Paradise Valley. Mesquite already has more wins this year than the last two seasons combined and enters their first championship game in school history.

While 4A has arguably been the best tournament of all the conferences in terms of quality games, the title game will not be held at a college stadium for the first time since the home team hosted in 2016, but Willow Canyon High School in Surprise stepped up to the plate to host this game. Unfortunately for you west side fans, the game will be at the same time as the 6A title game, Friday, Dec. 6, at 7:00 pm.

 

Be sure to go out tonight and support your teams in their championship battles! Be sure to join in on the conversation by using #FridayNight360AZ and @Sports360AZ. If you can’t make it out, be sure to follow @EricSports360AZ at Liberty vs Red Mountain and @JordyHamm at Mesquite vs Desert Edge.