Six years later and the debate still rages.

Altadeña or Akimel A-al?

They are a pair of rival middle schools within the Desert Vista boundaries that produce athletes left and right to keep the Thunder more than competitive in every sport.

This year's Thunder football team has 35 seniors, most of whom played on one or the other middle school team way back when.

"I was just arguing about it with Matt Smith (on Monday)," Desert Vista senior Mike Arredondo. "He went to Altadeña and I went to Akimel. We were having a huge argument about who was better. We were always competitive in every single sport.

"It's cool how once we all got to DV we became friends and grew up together, but before that we were competing against each other all along."

It's hard to believe for this huge class of seniors that the beginning of their final football season together starts tonight at 7 p.m. at home against Phoenix Maryvale.

At that same time this is the year they have all been waiting for.

"I remember as far back as sixth grade we talked about what it was going to be like as seniors," said Smith, a two-way player as a wide receiver and cornerback. "We knew if we stuck together that we'd have a chance to do something special."

That something special has turned into state title talk.

This isn't a hope-springs-eternal-fever-type deal where every team in spring training thinks it has a shot at going to the World Series. No, this team has the talent and experience to be serious contenders in the newly established Division I.

"We want to win state," senior fullback/linebacker Austin Mclennan said. "We have no problem admitting that. We are not being cocky. We aren't saying we are the best. We have to go out and earn it, but at the same time that's the goal. We know we can do it."

While others might be skeptical, most coaches would love to take a senior-laden team that knows the program in-and-out after being in the system for so long and has a talented junior class backing it up.

They are looking at last season's success - 10-3 and state semifinal appearance - as a starting point, not a destination.

Thunder coach Dan Hinds isn't any different.

"The biggest thing is leadership and the team unity as a big group," Hinds said. "Every team sets out ultimately to win state and that's their goal, but make them take a step back and figure out some objectives that will allow that to happen."

The team has all of the makeup to be successful with leaders like Arredondo, lineman J.J. Dielman, an experienced quarterback in Hunter Rodriguez and a talented backup in junior Matt Young. The team will be strong in the trenches and has the speed to keep up with a host of talented teams on the schedule.

Now it is just a matter of making it happen.

"We took some major steps last season (going from two wins in 2009 to 10) and brought back respect to the program," said Arredondo, who was the Fiesta Region two-way player of the year last year. "That was great for the senior class, but now we have to do our own thing.

"We started out slow and got hot at the end of the year (eight-game winning streak). If we want to back up our goals we have to be strong from the start."

The schedule has its minefields along the way, but getting a chance to start against Maryvale and Mesa at home, where the Thunder went 7-0 in 2010, has advantages. Then comes a bye week seven days before the Ahwatukee Bowl at Mountain Pointe on Sept. 9.

As the season starts, however, the seniors know it is time to put aside their Altadeña and Akimel allegiances and get another debate started - where will this team go down in Desert Vista history?

Are they in line to be like the 2007 squad that had all the talent in the world, but had a ho-hum regular season before going on a playoff run to finish as state runners-up. Or can they be as dominant as the 1998 squad that went 14-0 on the way to the 5A state title?

Or is it similar to last year's squad where they were underestimated all year before finding themselves in the state semifinals.

Hard to tell at this point, but there is no question this senior class believes there will be plenty of memories to take away from the 2011 season.

"We've worked hard to get to this point," Smith said. "We only have so many games left and we are going to do everything we can to make sure we keep playing as long as we can."

Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or

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