By Zach Alvira, GSN Sports Editor and Eric Newman, GSN Sports Writer
Take Williams Field, Casteel, Higley, Campo Verde and Gilbert. Add their 6A big brothers, Perry and Highland, and Mesquite of 4A to that slew of successful 5A programs and it becomes one of the best years ever in Gilbert-area high school football.
East Valley schools continued their dominance of the rankings in state’s two largest divisions.
Fifteen state champions came from the East Valley since 2000. Gilbert’s next-door neighbors, Chandler and Mesa, accounted for most of them. This year, a Gilbert school has a realistic chance to bring home a trophy.
Why did so many Gilbert teams –specifically those in the 5A San Tan Region with four Gilbert schools – become so competitive at the same time?
Ask the coaches and the common thread is growth. Gilbert still has undeveloped land and new subdivisions popping up everywhere.
“It’s the area,” said Williams Field coach Steve Campbell said. “When they did the regions, all of us in the area were put together. When you have this much growth in a community you get people who want to move in and enrollment numbers increase.”
Go to www.eastvalleytribune.com/varsityxtra for playoff seeding announced Saturday, Oct. 27, for first-round playoff games that begin Friday, Nov. 2.
Here’s a recap of the banner year by Gilbert-area teams.
The Black Hawks entered the final week of the regular season ranked second in 5A, behind Centennial. Williams Field likely will host playoff games through two rounds.
It has a balanced offense led by quarterback Zack Shepherd, a senior who passed for 1,290 yards and 13 touchdowns through nine games. On defense, the Black Hawks boast four-star safety Noa Pola-Gates.
Williams Field won the state championship two years ago, defeating Centennial. Those teams appear to be on a collision course for a rematch in this year’s title game.
A year removed from an undefeated championship season in 3A, the Colts acclimated to their two-conference bump. Casteel was 7-2 through nine games, losing only to the top-two teams in 5A, Centennial and Williams Field. Their signature win was a 56-24 rout of Higley, which also jumped to 5A.
Ten defensive players recorded 30 or more tackles. Casteel’s only losses came when the defense surrendered 25 or more points.
Senior quarterback Gunner Cruz led 5A with 2,837 passing yards through nine games. Senior Zach Nelson made 72 receptions for 1,158 yards and 11 touchdowns. The offense averaged 448 yards, third in 5A.
Higley, a consistent contender in 4A, came up a class this season and won seven games entering the final week, clinching a playoff spot.
Higley’s defensive line is among the best in the state, led by four-star defensive end Ty Robinson. On offense, Cal-Berkeley commit Spencer Brasch at quarterback and standout wide receiver Coleman Owen connected 64 times for 1,019 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Coach Eddy Zubey attributes the area’s banner year to population growth.
“There’s a lot of good coaches and players,” Zubey said. “Every program is great and it’s a great area. All of the coaches have been able to build strong programs here.”
The Coyotes jumped out to a 5-0 start before Gilbert’s passing game got the better of them. Campo Verde also fell to Williams Field and Higley.
At No. 11 in AIA playoff rankings through nine games, the Coyotes were playoff ready.
“We just have to stay healthy,” coach Max Ragsdale said. “This is East Valley football. From top to bottom in 5A, this is the toughest region. At the end of the day that’s what helps you.”
The Coyotes will be without leading rusher Matt Leazier, who rushed for 1,133 yards and 10 touchdowns before suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Higley on Oct. 5.
Through nine weeks, Gilbert High had the most-difficult schedule in 5A, yet the Tigers at 4-5 were still in the hunt for their first playoff berth since 2010 entering their final-week showdown with Maricopa.
Gilbert upset Campo Verde and played Williams Field close. Gilbert coach Derek Zellner embraced the challenge of a tough region.
“If we are going to play, we want to go up against tough teams,” Zellner said. “It really gives us the chance to show what we’ve got.”
Gilbert’s defense recorded 783 tackles, most in 5A. On offense, junior quarterback Will Plummer threw for 2,721 yards and 21 touchdowns.
As recent-graduate Brock Purdy lights it up as a freshman quarterback for Iowa State, younger brother Chubba led the Pumas to another successful season with just four interceptions to 29 passing touchdowns. The Pumas were 7-2 through nine games, losing only to Chandler and Pinnacle, the top two teams in 6A.
Ten Puma receivers caught a touchdown pass, taking the sting out of the loss of their best player, D’Shayne James, to a preseason injury.
Eight defenders have a sack, including five by senior Travis Beckman. Hurrying passers caused plenty of errant throws, and the Pumas secondary made eight interceptions.
Perry, which reached the state-title game a year ago, is in position to host a playoff game for the third consecutive year.
The Hawks, perhaps the most surprising team in the state, were 8-1 entering the final week and had all but locked up a first-round home playoff game.
Highland came into the final week at No. 4.
Senior Kohner Cullimore, a two-way starter, rushed for 617 yards and 10 touchdowns, caught 11 passes for 164 yards and another score and made 49 tackles and two interceptions.
Senior leadership from Cullimore and others helped the Hawks rise from pretender to contender in head coach Brock Farrel’s two seasons.
It looked bad after the Wildcats dropped their first three games. Then, led by quarterback Ty Thompson, Mesquite turned it around with five straight wins.
However, a Game 9 overtime loss to lowly ranked Marcos de Niza team put Mesquite on the outside looking in for a 4A playoff berth. It was No. 18 with a showdown against No. 2 Saguaro in the season finale.
Thompson threw for 2,235 yards and 21 touchdowns through nine weeks, playing a large part in Mesquite’s streak.