Mountain Pointe had to rally just to make the playoffs, while Desert Vista blew away a three-time state champion and end the nation’s longest winning streak.
Last year was a bit of a surprise on both ends.
The Pride had big expectations but settled for 6-5. Desert Vista was expected to be very good, but no one realized just how much a very determined and large senior class can mean on the field until they stood in the middle of the University of Phoenix Stadium hoisting the state title trophy.
So what does 2012 hold for the Ahwatukee programs?
Tough to know, but that doesn’t mean there are not storylines to follow before the Thunder kick it off on Aug. 18 and the Pride starts on Aug. 24.
Here are six things that will go a long way in defining the season.
How big is the target on Desert Vista as defending state champion?
Opposing coaches will use it to their advantage — “You have a chance to knock off the defending state champions” — just about every week.
The Thunder can expect to see everyone’s best game every Friday night. It is what happens when you have a target on your back. Desert Vista loved the underdog role last season, but it isn’t going to happen often this season.
This team will have a new look, but there is a core set of players back that understand what it takes to win. With that said, even they don’t know what it is like to be the hunted each and every week.
How will Mountain Pointe handle the gauntlet of a schedule this time around?
It all starts with Hamilton at home and then two weeks later they travel to Desert Vista. Chandler and Brophy to close out September.
The Pride lost all four last season and it can’t happen again. A split is possible and going 3-1 would put Mountain Pointe back into the contender category after a year away.
With Hunter Rodriguez and his penchant for staying in the pocket gone, how will the Thunder offense look with Matt Young in place?
Young, a senior getting his first shot behind center, has been waiting for this season. He is a quality talent that some thought was going to beat out Rodriguez at some point over the last two years. A state semifinal berth and state title, kept Young at bay.
Nothing stands in his way now.
“I feel great and I’m excited,” Young said. “I’m more comfortable each day and I cannot wait to get started.”
Who will be this year’s breakout players?
Last year Lorenzo Melvin of Desert Vista and Wesley Payne of Mountain Pointe were probably the top duo and their play made a difference throughout the year.
This year, the bet is on Mountain Pointe tight end Jimmy Holtrop, cornerback Travonn White and running back Garette Craig. Holtrop is athletic and will be running down the seam this fall. White gained tons of confidence in the spring after winning the state title in the long jump. He was solid at safety in his first year since coming over from St. Mary’s, but watch him burst into the spotlight at cornerback in 2012.
Craig is a jitterbug and will be a nice change of pace to Payne’s power running between the tackles.
The Thunder have been pointing toward Jalen Jelks as the next big thing and at 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds he is literally. He will find his way in the defensive line rotation and with Melvin on the other side, Jelks will make good on his one-on-one situations.
Desert Ridge transfer Taylor Truelove will make a more immediate impact as the 6-foot-4, 215-pounder is slated to be a starting outside linebacker.
Can Jalen Brown get enough touches to be a dominant force?
The Mountain Pointe junior showed great maturity last season as the Pride were without a strong-armed quarterback. It was also pretty clear that Brown was the target of 90 percent of the pass plays called.
He still managed 37 catches and 10 touchdowns, but it wasn’t the big year most expected from the freakishly athletic Brown, who was named a freshman All-American the year before.
With the 7-on-7 results all positive with junior Antonio Hinojosa running the offense, it seemed like there was a rapport between the two. If it leads to a 50-plus catches for Brown, the Pride offense will reach a new dimension.
Will Desert Vista’s defensive backfield be able to come up with plays like last season?
The Thunder DBs were unreal last season and all but 2 1/2 of the main contributors are gone.
The five top defensive backs combined for 15 interceptions (18 overall) and all five of them returned at least one of those interceptions for a touchdown. No way this year comes close to that kind of production.
It can still be very good with senior safety Nick Farina, who had four interceptions last year, and Austin Hicks, who started late in the season after an injury to Matt Smith, returning. Young said he is expected to be used in certain packages, but as quarterback won’t be playing much defense.
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