Here lies the 2011 East Valley football season in review.
It is, of course, hardly a complete revisitation of what's gone on on a daily and weekly basis since last spring, let alone since late August. It is merely a few of the more interesting or discussed talking points.
Plenty more didn't make this list, which is not to say they weren't important, or, arguably, more worthy of discussion.
It was, as they always are, a wild, winding road that was weaved. Congrats to all the champions and programs that didn't win but should still feel like champions for various reasons.
So, too, will shortly come time to look towards 2012.
Rest in peace. The visitation is now open to the public...
Probably the biggest consternation among all was the new computer scheduling, which automatically chose eight games based on each school's division (based on student enrollment) and section (loosely based on geography within each division). But it also left many scratching their heads about the computer's accuracy and fairness under new postseason guidelines in which the top three teams in each section automatically make the postseason (based on power rankings) while the rest are also determined by power points. With unbalanced schedules among all section schools, it's left many frustrated over inequities and an inability to accurately choose postseason awards for kids. Many schools wound up playing multiple games against schools in higher/lower division, while others never played schools a division higher/lower that were geographically closer than others. Schools scrambled to schedule two games on its own to fill out the 10-game schedule, and bye weeks were eliminated for this year in both the regular season and the postseason (for big schools).
Surprises on the scene
Anyone heard of TJ Thomas in August? It didn't take long before everyone in the East Valley learned, as the Dobson running back went from distant backup in 2010 to harnessing potential with 1,910 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns despite missing the final week of the season.
Both Seton Catholic's Ryan Bresnahan and Saguaro QB Luke Rubenzer were named starters right before opening night and both turned in exceptional seasons, especially Bresnahan as the Sentinels reached the Division IV state semifinals. San Tan Foothills went from 3-7 in 2010 to the Division V semifinals in 2011, one of the best feel-good stories in Arizona. Notre Dame was left for dead after boldly moving up to Division II this season and a 2-4 start followed by the leave of absence by coach Scot Bemis while he battles lung cancer. In turn, the Saints won four consecutive games to make the playoffs, then knocked off Salpointe Catholic in Tucson before falling in the quarterfinals. Scottsdale Christian made a midseason renaissance, Corona del Sol won five more games in Tom Joseph's first season as coach than they did in 2010. Poston Butte. Queen Creek's whole new team. Perry blew out Basha. The list goes on.
Sanders sits starters
The most controversial decision of the season belonged to Saguaro coach John Sanders. In one of the year's most anticipated games against bitter-rival Chaparral (Division II), he chose to sit several of his key players, including star running back D.J. Foster, leading to a 65-0 blowout victory for the Firebirds in the regular season finale on a national TV broadcast. Sanders drew criticism near and far for the decision, although he defended it by saying he did not want his key guys getting injured with the postseason around the corner. The Sabercats insisted the Division III state championship was the big goal, and they ultimately achieved it with a 31-23 victory over Glendale Cactus, but many believe sitting the starters will be the defining moment of this season for Saguaro, even above a second consecutive title.
Play to the whistle (or horn) is cliché, but there's reason for it. The proof is at Paradise Valley, which trailed Phoenix Thunderbird by 26 points in the second half, but a 3rd-and-21 conversion and QB sneak at the buzzer capped a 10-point swing in the final minute for the Trojans in victory. Desert Mountain did much the same to end Pinnacle's previously-perfect run in Week 9, as the Wolves scored 35 points in the fourth quarter that turned a 21-point deficit into a seven-point win. Hamilton used four fumbles in the fourth quarter by Chandler to keep the Huskies then-winning streak alive in late September. Red Mountain trailed big early against Desert Ridge, but that didn't last. Desert Vista trailed Saguaro 28-6 at halftime but the Thunder stayed the course and wore out the Sabercats in the second half to win 31-28. Mountain Pointe's Dillan Johnson missed a handful of games last year because of mono and was forced in a quarterback role in the early going, but the senior was eventually shifted back to running back as he managed to rush for 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Whether because of the new schedule format or kids being better than ever, the record books will absorb a lot of Whiteout this off-season: Desert Ridge's Joey Counts (411 yards rushing) set a big-school state record that lasted two weeks because Saguaro's D.J. Foster obliterated it with 508 yards and 10 touchdowns in the first round of the playoffs. Chaparral's Connor Brewer is Arizona's new career holder in touchdown passes (100). Ryan Bresnahan (Seton Catholic) nearly topped the single-season record for TD passes. Scottsdale Prep's Aidan Wright (535 yards in a game, 3,020 yards in a season, 50 TD passes) and Matt Munsil (19 catches for 279 yards) set Division VI (8-man) records. Remarkable indeed. Fair play? Or overzealous attempts to set records with starters within lopsided outcomes? That debate will forever rage on.
Much was written about the dominance by Hamilton (Div. I), Chaparral (Div. II) and Saguaro (Div. III) in their respective divisions this year. However, all three received tests in the postseason, with the Huskies famously falling to Desert Vista in the title game. Hamilton was beaten soundly by the Thunder, falling behind 21-0 early and never challenging in a 45-19 loss, breaking the team's 53-game winning streak. Chaparral lost its season opener to Las Vegas Bishop Gorman and survived a scare against Tucson Salpointe in its second game but seemed to be cruising after that. However, Peoria Centennial rallied from a 17-0 half-time deficit to jump ahead of the Firebirds, and Chaparral needed a late rally to hold on to win, 31-30 in the Division II semifinals. The Firebirds would cruise past Vail Cienega in the title game for their third straight championship. Saguaro fell behind Glendale Cactus 23-14 in the Division III title game, but scored the final 17 points of that one for a 31-23 victory and its fifth state championship in six seasons.
Desert Vista showed that team unity can mean the ultimate game in the win over Hamilton for the second title in school history. The players were tight, dedicated and believed. It led to one of the biggest upsets in state history and did it in a stunning fashion as the Huskies were down from the start and never threatened.