There are no automatic Arizona Interscholastic Association playoff berths given to region football champions anymore. But there are gauntlet regions that will either make or break teams trying to reach the post-season.
Best in 6A
This is the Chandler Unified School District, plus private Jesuit school Phoenix Brophy Prep. Chandler and Gilbert Perry lead a region that also includes Hamilton and Basha. Hamilton has struggled the last two seasons against Chandler and Perry. Perry has emerged the last two years as the new giant in the Southeast Valley and, despite losing star receiver/quarterback D’Shayne James for the season after undergoing knee surgery, the Pumas are still well-stocked at every position. Expect Hamilton’s defense to improve under new coach Mike Zdebski, who was a defensive guru in Michigan, where he wound up with a high school hall of fame coaching career. Basha and Brophy should see improvements.
Predicted order of finish: Chandler, Perry, Hamilton, Basha, Brophy Prep.
Next best: Central Regionpredicted order — Phoenix Mountain Pointe, Mesa Desert Ridge, Queen Creek, Phoenix Desert Vista, Gilbert Highland, Tempe Corona del Sol.
Best in 5A
San Tan Region
Don’t be surprised if one of these teams reaches the state final. Queen Creek Casteel, 14-0 last year in 3A, gives it a big boost in its first year in 5A with its first senior class. With a playmaker on both sides of the ball like Noa Pola-Gates, Gilbert Williams Field won’t go down quietly. Gilbert Higley moves up a conference and into this region with arguably the state’s best defensive front that includes Jason Harris, Ty Robinson and Logan Maxwell. Gilbert, a team that had Mountain Pointe on the ropes last season, will only be better after the move down from 6A. Gilbert Campo Verde and Maricopa round out a region that is rock solid from top to bottom.
Predicted order of finish: Casteel, Williams Field, Higley, Gilbert, Maricopa, Campo Verde.
Next best: Northwest Region predicted order — Peoria Centennial, Peoria Sunrise Mountain, Phoenix Sunnyslope, Glendale Apollo, Glendale Ironwood, Glendale Raymond S Kellis.
Best in 4A
The Desert Sky might as well be called the Saguaro Region, because nobody will be beating the five-time defending state champion Sabercats. But in Tucson, Kino looks to be the most balanced with Salpointe Catholic, led by backs Bijan Robinson and Mario Padilla, the team to beat. But Sahuaro (moving down from 5A), Canyon del Oro and Catalina Foothills all are capable of making the 16-team state playoffs out of this region. The two wildcards are the Casa Grande schools — Casa Grande and Vista Grande.
Predicted order of finish: Salpointe, Sahuaro, Canyon del Oro, Catalina Foothills, Casa Grande, Vista Grande.
Next best: West Valley predicted order — Peoria, Goodyear Desert Edge (moved down from 5A), Glendale Deer Valley (moved down from 5A), Glendale Cactus, Lake Havasu.
Best in 3A
Two charter programs are at the top with Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin and American Leadership-Queen Creek. American Leadership-Ironwood also will be good in the transition from the Canyon Athletic Association. ALA-QC is on probation, but it will treat each Friday like it is their playoffs. Florence is always tough and could have the most dominant defender in the region in junior defensive end Regen Terry, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound beast. Running back Zach Jefferies gives Franklin title hopes after leading team to 11-2 record last season. Coolidge and San Tan Foothills both play in this loaded region.
Predicted order of finish: ALA-QC, Benjamin Franklin, Florence, Coolidge, ALA-Ironwood, San Tan Foothills.
Next best: East Region predicted order — Show Low, Snowflake, Lakeside Blue Ridge, Winslow, Payson, Holbrook.
Best in 2A
The top two ranked teams in 2A are in this region — Thatcher and Eagar Round Valley. There is no slowing down these programs that are built on toughness and discipline. Pima has gotten stronger with key additions and St. Johns is always tough with Mike Morgan leading the program. Morenci is no pushover, as well.
Predicted order of finish: Thatcher, Round Valley, Pima, St. Johns, Morenci.
Next best: Agua Fria Region predicted order — Eloy Santa Cruz, Phoenix Christian, Phoenix Arizona Lutheran, Scottsdale Christian, Laveen Heritage Academy, ASU Prep.
Best in 1A
There are three playoff teams with Williams, Joseph City and Heber Mogollon. Williams won it all last season and returns another strong team ready to repeat. Joseph City and Mogollon both have potent players who will give Williams a challenge.
Predicted order of finish: Williams, Mogollon, Joseph City, El Capitan, Fredonia.
Next best: West Region predicted order –– Bagdad, Salome, Mayer, Winterhaven (Calif.) San Pasqual, Bullhead City Mohave Accelerated, Anthem Prep.