2017 high school football preview: Saguaro Sabercats

Saguaro quarterback Max Massingale (4) rushes through an open hole during an Aug. 1 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

On the heels of an absolute dominant showing in 2016, the Saguaro High School Football team is looking to make history in 2017 but Head Coach Jason Mohns says he knows this year will be no walk in the park.

Last year, the Sabercats dominated on both sides of the ball and wove together a perfect season ending with the team’s 10th state title. They won their state championship game 42–14, capping off a 183–30 combined score over opponents in the playoffs.

In the hunt for their fifth consecutive state title — a feat no Arizona high school football team has accomplished — Coach Mohns will turn to a cast of younger, inexperienced players to bolster the Sabercats moving forward.

Saguaro quarterback Max Massingale takes a snap during an Aug. 1 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Many of those younger players will look to fill the colossal shoes left by players such as running back Stone Matthews and linebacker Brandt Casey, among several others.

Despite the youth of this year’s Saguaro team, Coach Mohns said they are still talented and have the potential to win that fifth consecutive state championship.

“We might not be the finished product that’s polished early in the season as we were last year — because we had so many veterans — but I think this team, from an athletic standpoint and a potential standpoint, can be every bit as good by the end of the season and going into the playoffs,” he said in an Aug. 1 interview.

While the Sabercats do look to fill key spots on the offensive and defensive lines, they do return several experienced players at key positions.

This year’s captains are quarterback Max Massingale, safety/running back Josiah Bradley, tight end/outside linebacker Giovanni Miranda, center Ruben Pimbert, receiver Zach Wilson and outside linebacker Joey Corte.

A challenge Coach Mohns says he has seen with working with a younger team is getting it to develop a sense of urgency and not be complacent.

Helping his team get there, Coach Mohns said, has been fun for the coaching staff because those players are talented and can reach the heights of last year’s team.

“I think we’re having fun because we’re replacing really good players but we’re replacing them with really good players, they just don’t have the experience yet,” he said. “We’re trying to coach them up and get them to that level we expect are guys to be.”

Saguaro will have a chance to showcase its talents against some top, out-of-state teams to kick-off its season.

After a rematch of last year’s 4A state championship game against Catalina Foothills High School, the Sabercats will travel to Nevada state runner-up Liberty High School Saturday, Aug. 26.

Following that matchup, East High School, back-to-back Utah state champion and No. 13 in USA Today’s preseason poll, will travel to Saguaro Friday, Sept. 1.

Skyline Region play begins Friday, Sept. 15 against St. Mary’s for the Sabercats.

Last year, Coach Mohns was completely confident Saguaro was the best team on the field heading into each game. This year is a bit different.

“This year, I think we’re as talented from an athlete standpoint but we’re not as established,” he said. “We haven’t established ourselves yet. Going into the first three or four games of the year, we’ve got to establish that we’re still that dominate team.”

A Saguaro football players carries the football upfield during a Aug. 1 practice. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Offense

Coach Mohns described his offense as a one-back team with three to four receivers spread across the field. The tight end also fluctuates from being attached to the line or split out.

The biggest loss to the Sabercats’ offense is the graduation of Matthews, who rushed for 2,088 yards and 31 touchdowns last year.

Matthews’ replacement looks to be Bradley and senior La’ray Lucas, who Coach Mohns said was a “pleasant surprise.”

With Bradley playing both ways, Lucas could see some significant time in at running back throughout the year.

“He kind of reminds me of Stone because he’s a shorter, squattier back with really good vision and really good balance,” Coach Mohns said.

Massingale returns to the backfield after a 2016 campaign of 2,291 passing yards, 1,012 rushing yards, 30 passing touchdowns and 12 rushing touchdowns.

“When you have a younger team but you can return that guy that everything runs through, you feel pretty good about it,” Coach Mohns said. “Max is definitely that guy.”

Joining Pimbert on the offensive line is junior Jelani Newman, senior Patrick Mcinerney and sophomore Tye Kassen. At right tackle, junior Jayden Swink and senior Carter Koziol have rotated.

This group of linemen have the task of filling spots left by Corey Stephens, Brandon Boyce and Jax Wacaser, all Division I recruits.

At receiver, senior Logan Pettijohn, Brayden Green and Wilson all look to be the frontrunners.

Junior JoJo Patterson is a transfer from Sunnyslope High School who Coach Mohns says he hopes gains eligibility this year. Patterson reeled in 169 yards and three touchdowns his sophomore year at Sunnyslope.

Miranda will replace Jared Poplawski as tight end. Coach Mohns sees Miranda as not as strong of a blocker as Poplawski but a better receiver when flexed out.

However, Coach Mohns does see Miranda improving and thinks he could be a factor in the run game as the season continues.

As a whole at receiver, Coach Mohns has several players he can put in there who he is confident can make an impact.

“We’ve got a lot of depth at our receiver spot,” Coach Mohns said. “That’s probably our deepest, most talented position and we’ve got a quarterback who can get it to them.”

Defense

The Sabercats defense looks to be a hybrid of a 3-4 and a 4-2-5 with a weak side linebacker who can come up to the line of scrimmage and blitz or work in pass coverage.

The defense bears down on a passing attempt by Saguaro quarterback Max Massingale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

As a whole, Saguaro is losing eight out of its 11 starters, Coach Mohns said.

Some of those key losses include Boyce, Casey, Austin Shirley and Kaelib Jarrell. Both Boyce and Jarrell were Division I recruits while Coach Mohns referred to Casey as the “heart and soul of the team.”

Despite these losses, Coach Mohns says he has faith in those who will rise to fill those spots.

The secondary looks to feature Bradley returning and playing alongside either junior Nate Polk and senior Antonio Cuevas as safeties.

As cornerbacks, juniors Brandon Shivers and Dayvion Sumpter have risen to the task. Coach Mohns said he thinks his cornerbacks are really talented.

Juniors Clay Randall and Connor Soelle look to fill the shoes of Casey and Carson Nugent.

“Those two guys (Randall and Soelle) are the most athletic inside linebackers we’ve ever had here,” Coach Mohns said.

What makes them good, Coach Mohns said, is they are fast enough to step out and cover slot receivers and play as a typical inside linebacker.

The defensive line will feature several new players. Coach Mohns expects Swink and Mcinerney to work in time as defensive tackles.

Koziol is making the switch from outside linebacker to defensive end, because Coach Mohns said he outgrew the linebacker spot. Senior Cameron Smith also made the jump from linebacker to defensive lineman for the same reason and will likely see time.

Some new faces to the defensive line include junior transfer Seth Robinson and several younger players who Coach Mohns said aren’t household names yet but could be later in the season.

With so many spots open on the defense, Coach Mohns says he is happy to see the work not only from the older players, but the younger players pushing the older players.

He likes to see that out of his team because he wants to put the best 11 players on the field on defense and those are the guys who are making plays on the field and putting in the work on the field and in the weight room.

“We’re going to find those guys. We might not find them right away but after you get a couple of games under your belt, you’re going to find those guys and you’re going to identify them,” Coach Mohns said.

“We’ve got enough talent that once we find out those guys we call dogs, we find out who are 11 dogs are on defense, we’re going to be pretty damn good.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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