For the third time in five years, head coach Norris Vaughan and the Mountain Pointe High School football team will enter the state tournament as the No. 1 seed.
It may have come as a surprise to some, as Desert Ridge, the only in-state team that handed Mountain Pointe a loss this season, received the No. 2 seed. But, the Pride have proved themselves time and time again as one of the best teams in Arizona.
Junior kicker Ben Abercrombie drilled a 31-yard field goal as time expired to deliver another win for the Pride Friday and secure their 8-2 regular season record. Now, the Pride will look to No. 16-seed Cibola (5-5) on Friday at Karl Kiefer stadium.
The Raiders enter the 6A State Tournament high off a big 28-15 win over Tucson High Magnet School, capturing a piece of the 6A Southern Region and an automatic bid into the state playoffs.
As the Raiders were ranked at No. 21 in the final AZPreps365 rankings of the season, capturing the region championship knocked bubble teams like No. 15-ranked Desert Vista and No. 16-ranked Gilbert out of the playoff picture.
The Raiders, led by longtime head coach Lucky Arvizo, are riding a three-game winning streak heading into their first-round matchup. While the Raiders sport a record of 5-5, they have won four of those games on the road as they head to Ahwatukee on Friday
Offensively for the Raiders, it has been a heavy dose of Jesse Escott all season long. The senior running back has carried the ball 194 times for 1,071 yards and 14 touchdowns.
But the 5-foot-7, 200-pound back has played in only seven games this season and has eclipsed the 100-yard mark in every game. He has scored at least one touchdown in every game but one, a 28-25 loss to Valley Vista.
The Raiders are led by an Arvizo on the sideline and under center, as junior quarterback Ethan Arvizo holds the reins on the offensive side. He’s completed 104 passes for 1,488 yards and 14 touchdowns this season. He’s also only thrown five interceptions in 2017 and two of those came in a 41-0 blowout loss to Southwest EC at the beginning of the season.
The junior gunslinger has spread the ball around this season with 13 different Raiders catching passes, but nearly half of his completions have gone to Gabriel Ramirez. The junior receiver has caught 50 passes for 939 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017.
The only other Raider with over 200 yards receiving is sophomore Zeke Rios, who has caught 16 passes for 232 yards.
The Raiders’ three offensive weapons will run into one of the strongest defenses that they will have faced.
While Arvizo will have to throw into a secondary that has picked off 17 passes and deflected 69 more this season, Escott will run into a defensive line that limited Chandler running backs Drake Anderson and DeCarlos Brooks to 114 yards on Sept. 8.
Defensive linemen Shomari Hayes and Kenneth Lofton have combined for 15 sacks this season and were recently joined by junior lineman Matthew Pola-Mao, who returned from an injury Friday night to make his first appearance of the season.
In the secondary, Ramirez will have to find a way to deal Delano Salgado, Marshawn Gibson and Kenny Churchwell to have any impact on the game.
All season long the Pride have relied on their running back tandem of senior Gary Bragg and junior Jakim McKinney, who have combined for 1,858 yards and 22 touchdowns.
But recently, junior quarterback Nick Wallerstedt has solidified himself as a solid throwing quarterback, passing for a combined 276 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games.
The Mountain Pointe offense will run into a strong grouping of linebackers from Cibola. Senior Sebastian Torres leads the group, and the team, with 96 tackles in 2017 and is averaging 10.7 tackles per game. He’s also caused a fumble and recovered two more.
Along with Torres, junior Elijah Contreras and senior Jacob Mcghee have been big for the No. 16 seed. Contreras has tallied 89 tackles on the season, leads the Raiders in sacks, and has caused two fumbles.
Mcghee has only racked up 25 tackles on the season but has picked off two passes and has forced four fumbles. These three, along with defensive tackle Damian Magdaleno, will look to contain the Mountain Pointe offense and try to upset the No. 1 team in 6A.
If the Pride can stay disciplined on both sides of the ball and avoid major penalties – something the team didn’t do a lot in its season finale against Gilbert last Friday – look for the No. 1 seed to race into the second round and face the winner of No. 8 Highland vs. No. 9 Desert Mountain.
Mountain Pointe hosts this Friday’s playoff game at 7 p.m.
Around the rest of 6A, Desert Ridge will face off with No. 15-seed Westview. Chandler, Perry and Hamilton were given the three, four and five seeds and will match up with Mesa Mountain View, Boulder Creek and Skyline, respectively.
In 5A, the defending state champion Williams Field drew the No. 7-seed after upsetting previously undefeated Queen Creek on Friday. The Blackhawks will face-off with No. 10-seeded Chaparral.
The Firebirds handed the Blackhawks their last loss of the season on September 15. Since then, the defending state champions have snapped off five straight wins, including a 28-27 last-minute win over No. 14-seed Campo Verde.
In the 4A conference, the Higley Knights received the No. 3-seed and Seton Catholic received the No. 6 seed, which could set up another rematch of their season finale matchup from Friday, in the second round.
Marcos de Niza earned the No. 9 seed and a matchup with No. 8 Cactus Shadows.
While 6A, 5A and 4A conferences will play on Friday night, the 3A and 2A games will take place on Saturday.
In the 3A conference, Casteel will look to continue their undefeated season after receiving the No. 3 seed and a matchup with No. 14-seed Empire. No. 2-seeded American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek, which lost its only game of the season in week two against No. 1-seed Pusch Ridge, will face off with Ganado in the first round as they seem to be on a collision course with the Colts.
Finally, in the 2A conference, three East Valley teams remain and two of them will face off in the first round, as No. 7-seed Gilbert Christian will take on No. 10-seed Tempe Prep. The No. 11-seeded San Tan Foothills squad will have the opportunity to host a first-round game after capturing the 2A Metro East regional title with an overall record of 8-2. The Sabercats will host No. 6-seeded St. Johns on Saturday at 6 p.m.