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Class 5A football: Bishop Gorman, Liberty still on top

Desert League

Arbor View Aggies

Coach: Matt Gerber (17-6 entering third season)

2021 record: 8-3

Playoffs: Lost to Liberty in the Class 5A Southern Region semifinals

Breakdown: Gerber said the Aggies have as much talent as any team he’s had in 28 years of coaching. The only question is what they do with it.

He said Juice Washington, who will be used as a running back and receiver, has been one of the main players to take on a leadership role, and everybody on the team also looks up to wide receiver David Washington. Maddux Larsen was a backup last season, but has emerged as a leader on the offensive line at guard.

Linebacker Christian Thatcher is back at middle linebacker after a 99-tackle freshman season. Zurich Ashford sets the standard for the defensive line, Gerber said. Tanner Aitken and Kade DeSantis, who probably would have been a starter last year but tore an ACL, spearhead the secondary.

Bishop Gorman Gaels

Coach: Brent Browner (14-1 entering second season)

2021 record: 12-1

Playoffs: Defeated McQueen in the 5A state championship game

Breakdown: The Gaels won the state championship last season and are potentially loaded for more this year. Bishop Gorman has 11 seniors and plenty of underclassmen with at least one Division I scholarship offer.

Quarterback Micah Alejado threw for 2,699 yards and 31 touchdowns and only two interceptions as a sophomore, and he will have one of the nation’s most dynamic playmakers in Zachariah Branch (48 catches, 1,094 yards, 14 TDs receiving) at his disposal, along with a three-headed running back rotation of Will Stallings, Micah Kaapana and DeVon Rice. Zak Yamauchi leads a deep and talented group on the offensive line.

Aiden McComber is back on the defensive line after a 17-sack season, and Jamih Otis (102 tackles, seven sacks) and Palaie Faoa (84 tackles) are game-changers at linebacker. Georgia commit Justyn Rhett is back at cornerback, and he’s surrounded by experienced players in Jeremiah Hughes, Elijah Palmer and Kodi Decambra.

Canyon Springs Pioneers

Coach: Quincy Burts (first season)

2021 record: 2-6

Playoffs: None

Breakdown: Burts moves over from Valley and inherits a team he labeled as sophomore-oriented.

Darrell Finks probably will be the Pioneers’ top playmaker as a running back and wide receiver, and he also will lead the secondary as a cornerback. Linebacker Ezekiel Lakes is expected to be a leader on defense.

Adrian Trejo will anchor the offensive line from his center position and is one of the many sophomores Burts expects to be the core of the program for this season and the next two years. Burts said Canyon Springs’ biggest strength is the way the defense gets to the ball.

Foothill Falcons

Coach: Vernon Brown (12-8 entering third season)

2021 record: 5-3

Playoffs: Lost to Bishop Gorman in the 5A Southern Region semifinals

Breakdown: Foothill lost 36 seniors, but Brown isn’t calling it a rebuilding year.

The Falcons have two returning wide receivers and defensive backs in Ternillia Thomas and Nathan Anderson, while Lawrence Houston figures to be a force on both lines. Mason Heizelbetz also will be a key on the offensive line at center.

Tarrell Mack-Lovely, who transferred from Valley, should help as a wide receiver and defensive back, while Mason Dew will take over as the starting quarterback. Blake Sharp and Jaxson Burgess should be standouts in the linebacking corps.

Legacy Longhorns

Coach: Zach Monticelli (3-6 entering second season)

2021 record: 3-6

Playoffs: Lost to Liberty in the 5A Southern Region quarterfinals

Breakdown: The Longhorns will be young after returning only three starters and about 10 who received playing time last season.

Monticelli said youth isn’t always a bad thing and expects for Legacy to have plenty of players who can run on the outside.

Wide receiver and free safety Micah McGirt is back as a two-way starter, while Emeka Nsofor will man the middle linebacker spot. Darren Bowen also will help as a running back and cornerback. Monticelli expects it to take time for his team to get used to playing at varsity speed, but hopes the Longhorns hit their stride in the middle of the season.

Palo Verde Panthers

Coach: Joe Aznarez (27-34 entering seventh season)

2021 record: 3-6

Playoffs: None

Breakdown: The Panthers have about 40 players who received playing time last season and 13 returning starters.

Blair Thayer, whom Aznarez described as a throwback, will be the primary ball carrier, though fullback and middle linebacker Donovan Bell will get his chances with the ball, too. Tight end Jake Fields is a Division I type, Aznarez said, and he likes how sophomore quarterback Crew Daniels has taken the reins of the offense.

The Panthers have moved away from the double wing into more of a pistol look, but they still plan on running the ball. Having four of their five starters back on the offensive line should help.

Mountain League

Centennial Bulldogs

Coach: Dustin Forshee (21-21 entering fifth season)

2021 record: 1-8

Playoffs: None

Breakdown: The Bulldogs expect to be more competitive than last season, but nowhere near where they were in 2019 when they played for a state championship, Forshee said.

Centennial will have about 30 returning players with experience and seven starters back on both sides of the ball. Forshee expects the defense to be the Bulldogs’ strength, especially the front seven, which he said could be the best in the valley outside of Bishop Gorman’s and Liberty’s.

More players will go both ways, led by wide receiver and defensive back Damari Wiggins and wide receiver and defensive end Nicauri Shelton, and Santanna James will play on both lines. Middle linebacker Victor Plotnikov is back, and Forshee said Plotnikov gets the Bulldogs in all the right calls.

Desert Pines Jaguars

Coach: Tico Rodriguez (74-18 entering ninth season) 702-336-3994

2021 record: 5-4

Playoffs: Lost to Arbor View in the 5A Southern Region quarterfinals

Breakdown: The Jaguars could have easily won all but one of the games they lost last season, so they have emphasized finishing this season.

Desert Pines has nine returning starters on defense and six on offense, so it’s an experienced bunch. As usual, the Jaguars have some players with next-level talent. Defensive end Idgerrin Dean and linebacker Malik Stinnett are fantastic players who will lead the defense, Rodriguez said.

Quarterback Marquis Roby takes over, and Rodriguez said he’s super athletic and makes good decisions. Gregory Burrell is a 6-foot-1-inch, 205-pounder whom Rodriguez said looks like a prototypical Southeastern Conference running back.

Faith Lutheran Crusaders

Coach: Mike Sanford (5-8 entering second season)

2021 record: 2-7

Playoffs: Lost to Bishop Gorman in the 5A Southern Region quarterfinals

Breakdown: It’s the second full season for former UNLV coach Sanford with the Crusaders, and he said he’s pleased with how the program’s culture is coming along.

Quarterback Rylan Walter is back after throwing for 1,249 yards with five touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a junior. He will get help from running backs Cale Breslin and Vicentico Pringle and four returning offensive linemen, led by Dixon Ryan and center Tobyas Spotted Eagle.

Ryan will also help on the defensive line along with Michael Perry, while cornerback Nehemiah Brooks is the Crusaders’ top returner in the secondary. Sanford expects special teams to be a strength, especially kicker and punter Caden Chittenden, who was 5-for-5 on his field-goal tries and made two from 52 yards during last weekend’s scrimmage.

Green Valley Gators

Coach: Clay Mauro (first season)

2021 record: 7-3

Playoffs: Lost to Foothill in the 5A Southern Region quarterfinals

Breakdown: New coach Mauro moves up from defensive coordinator and has about 25 returning players.

Mauro spent a lot of time developing a leadership council, and that group will include wide receiver Freddy Rodriguez, linebacker Nate Richter, quarterback Jack Thow and running back and linebacker Tyler Eenhuis.

Mauro won’t change much on Green Valley’s run-pass option offense, and he said the offensive line has benefited from working with former Gator and NFL player Tyrell Crosby. He said the offensive line isn’t big but is young and agile.

The defense figures to be the Gators’ strength, especially early in the season, with the continuity of Mauro having been promoted and more experience on that side of the ball.

Liberty Patriots

Coach: Rich Muraco (122-35 entering 13th season)

2021 record: 10-2

Playoffs: Lost to Bishop Gorman in the 5A Southern Region championship game

Breakdown: The Patriots will have seven or eight offensive starters, depending on the personnel group, but only four defensive starters returning, Muraco said.

Muraco said only five or six of Liberty’s starters will be seniors, with the vast majority juniors. The offensive line will be big and experienced, with four of the five starters returning, and they will block for the team’s leading rusher from last season, Isaiah Lauofo. Wide receiver Landon Bell and Ethan Hilliard figure to emerge as the Patriots’ top receivers.

Muraco expects the strengths of the defense to be its linebackers, with Kahekili Paaoao back as the defensive captain. Green Valley transfer Sonny Vitale and Jae Beasley will also help in the linebacking corps. The secondary lost four of its five starters.

Contact Jason Orts at jorts@reviewjournal.com. Follow @SportsWithOrts on Twitter.

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