4A football preview

November 9, 2017 by Les Willsey, AZPreps365

In winning four consecutive football championships, Saguaro hasn't been challenged for a full game in the 16 playoff contests encompassing the quartet of crowns. The closest game by point spread in that span was an 18-point victory in 2015 vs. Marcos de Niza in the Division II title game at Arizona Stadium.

This year during the regular season there was one close call from an Arizona opponent. It was a 24-21 victory on Sept. 22 over Sunrise Mountain on a field goal with just seconds remaining. Saguaro, Sunrise Mountain, Salpointe Catholic and Higley have dominated 4A this season. There is little reason to think teams other than those four will fill the semifinal slots. Nothing scientific, just a hunch that once the semis arrive high-cailber matchups will spill over into the title game with whomever the finalists turn out to be.

Here's a glance at 2017's elite eight in 4A:

#1 Sunrise Mountain (10-1): The Mustangs wield a potent offense led by the pass-catch combo of junior quarterback Keegan Fried and senior wide out Angel Ruiz. Fried has tossed 32 touchdowns passes and thrown for 2,566 yards. Ruiz has 20 TD receptions on 62 catches for 1,327 yards. Fried also leads in rushing with 590 yards and 11 TDs while running backs Drake Flores and Derick Bangle teaming up for 1,000 yards rushing. Steve Decker's team is allowing just 12 points a game.

#2 Saguaro (9-2): The Sabercats are solid on both sides of the ball piecing together an eight-game winning streak after a pair of out-of-state losses to Nevada and Utah schools.  They average 41 points a game and allow just 14. Senior Max Massingale is eyeing a second-straight title as starting quarterback and has followed up his junior year with an equally impressive senior campaign. Massingale has thrown for 2,681 yards and 27 TDs and rushed for 499 yards and 6 scores. It's a two-man aerial game predominantly with Logan Pettijohn and Zach Wilson with 59 catches each for 2.052 yards and 19 TDs. 

#3 Higley (10-1): The Knights have huge wins over Cactus and Seton this season -- games they jumped out fast and were never challenged. Their only loss is to Saguaro where they were the slow starter and humbled to the tune of 42-14. Saguaro stands in Higley's way if the Knights want to play in their second title game ever. The first was in 2006. It's been another large year for senior running back-slot back Draycen Hall. Hall has amassed 1.915 yards rushing and receiving and scored 29 TDs with considerable fewer touches than last year. The defense is led by linebacker Cade Matthews with 116 tackles and seven sacks. 

#4 Salpointe (10-1): The Lancer arguabley have fielded their best team since 2013 when they completed a perfect 14-0 season with a D-II title. Their only loss is to 5A No. 1 Cienega, a respectable 30-20 defeat. The run-heavy Lancers are led by sophomore Bijan Robinson, who has rushed for 1,426 yards and 22 TDs. Defense may be their strongest unit with five shutouts and has allowed tha just eight points a game. That prowess will be challenged going forward.

#5 Cactus (9-2): The Cobras have enjoyed plenty of success against the playoff field having defeated Mingus, Marcos de Niza, Cactus Shadows, Moon Valley and Peoria. Their losses were blowouts to Sunrise Mountain and Higley. The Cobras were never in either game so that must change since they must beat Salpointe and likely Sunrise Mountain to reach the final. Senior running back Damaria Norris is a one-man wrecking crew. He's rushed for 1,827 yards and 32 TDs and leads the team in receiving with 27 receptions for 380 yards.Norris was limited to 110 yards total in losses to Sunrise Mountain and Higley.

#6 Seton Catholic (9-2): The Sentinels had a nice bounce-back week in the playoffs' first round edging last year's 4A runner-up Catalina Foothills late, 29-22. The bounce-back was from a 50-0 loss to Higley -- their quarterfinal opponent. Junior quarterback Vince Wallace has enjoyed a solid season passing for 1,859 yards and 21 TDs. Wallace passed for 272 and three scores last week. Seton also possesses 1,000-yard rusher Nick Wade (13 TDs).

#7 Peoria (9-2): The Panthers are yet another quarterfinal team that didn't come close to beating top seeds. They lost big to Sunrise Mountain and played Cactus well for a bit better than a half before getting blown out after intermission. Peoria's forte is the ground game led by 1,000-yard rusher Juwaun Price (18 TDs), quarterback Nate Dobson and senior back Sonatane Zibala.

#8 Cactus Shadows (7-4): The Falcons played a bunch of playoff teams and defeated a handful -- Seton, Mingus, Moon Valley and Marcos de Niza. They didn't fare well against Cactus or Saguaro, bowing to Saguaro two weeks ago, 49-0, for the Skyline Region title. Cactus Shadows avenged a close loss to Marcos de Niza in the opening round, but Sunrise Mountain's a tougher egg to crack. The Falcons are led by sophomore running back Jaxen Schneider, the team's top rusher and receiver, and quarterback Andrew Young.

The quarterfinal matchups this week: Cactus Shadows at Sunrise Mountain; Cactus at Salpointe; Seton Catholic at Higley and Peoria at Saguaro.