Tucson — Centennial football is always a reliable, powerful vehicle — like a Jeep you can drive in town but also take off-roading on the dunes and through the woods.
Every couple of years, they add another gear or two and some tighter handling to that base package. When that happens, look out Arizona.
In the second and third quarters of the Saturday, Dec. 2 5A state football title game, the Coyotes were at top speed – and No. 4 seed Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep (13-1) could only watch them whiz by on the Arizona Stadium turf.
No. 2 Centennial (13-1) scored 35 points in those quarters and added a sixth touchdown in the first minute of the fourth quarter to cap a dominant performance, a 42-21 victory in a final that was not even that close.
“It unfolded the way we hoped. When Zidane scores like that it’s a spark — because things were very tense and we didn’t have much of anything going,” Centennial Coach Richard Taylor said after the game. “Ruben has been outstanding. Here’s a guy that for a lot of teams would be the star, but it’s so tempting to give it to Zidane every time. (Offensive coordinator) Ian Comes did a good job with the game plan and play calls.”
Both teams punted twice in the first quarter after minimal gains. The two weeks of preparation since the Nov. 17 semifinals seemed to suit both defenses, who locked down playmakers like Notre Dame Prep tailback/receiver Jake Smith and Centennial powerhouse tailback Zidane Thomas.
“Our defensive coaches saw every single play that they ran over the last six games. We didn’t kind of know what they did on first down, we knew exactly what they did on first down. And, for the most part, that is what they did,” Coach Taylor said. “Our kids like that. The closer the contact, the bloodier it gets, the more (the defense) likes it.”
But the Coyotes offense took what it learned Nov. 17 from adding multiple dimensions, new formations and other playmakers during its epic 42-37 semifinal win over Liberty and unleashed the full package on the Saints.
Centennial burst into prominence in the second quarter, gaining 254 yards in the frame. Most of that came during a five-minute stretch where the Coyotes turned the game on its ear.
The offense had just gained its initial first down of the contest on a 18-yard strike from Ruben Beltran to Alex Escobar. The Saints stuffed Beltran and a delay of game penalty left the Coyotes with second and 15 at the 33.
It was time for Thomas, who shrugged off a tackle just past the line of scrimmage and jetted for a 67-yard touchdown.
“I like it when other players get it and we all see the ball and take pressure off each other. When we go into different formations and different people come in it’s great,” Thomas said. “We lined up differently on that play, in more of an open set. So I think they weren’t really ready for the run. It opened things up. We have explosive players and just needed a play to get going.”
A quick three-and-out kept the momentum going, as Beltran connected with junior A.J. Jackson for 39 yards on a crossing pattern.
Senior slotback Alex Escobar lined up in the backfield and took the sweep, breaking two tackles and running around a teammate for a 15-yard score.
“Coach Comes put a lot of trust in me, especially in the playoffs. It was a great night for me and Zidane and all of us on offense,” Escobar said.
A roughing the passer call was the Saints’ best offense of the quarter, but they could not capitalize on that.
Centennial immediately took a shot deep and was rewarded. Beltran froze the linebackers and safeties with a play fake and threw probably the best deep ball of his two years as the starter.
University of Washington-bound cornerback Dominique Hampton – moonlighting as receiver – beat his man and caught Beltran’s bomb in stride and completed the 59-yard touchdown pass for a 21-0 lead with 4:13 on the clock.
“My offensive line gave me the time to take that shot. They’re the main part of our offense,” Beltran said. “All the time our defense was on the field, Dom and I were talking about that play. We said we were going to score on the first play and we did. It was amazing.”
Less than five minutes before the game was scoreless.
Senior defensive tackle Anthony Campbell’s sack gave the Coyotes one more chance before halftime. Campbell missed most of the regular season with an injury, but the all conference tackle was at full strength, leading the Coyotes with eight tackles and two sacks.
Senior kicker Xavier Rojas’ 41-yard field goal attempt sailed just wide left as the half ended. But that was about all that went wrong for Taylor’s team on this day.
“Man, it’s devastating,” Notre Dame Prep senior tailback Cole Fisher said. “We worked our butts off to get here and we just couldn’t finish. Hats off to Centennial. They’re a great program. They’re a great team.”
Thomas took over to start the second half gaining 7 yards on the first carry, then breaking into the clear down the Saints’ sideline for a 61-yard touchdown scamper and 28-0 lead.
“We knew this team had come back from deficits and we knew we had to come out like it was 0-0. We had the ball first and we had to keep things rolling,” Thomas said.
In its first state title game since 2008, the Scottsdale squad finally rebalanced itself and showed, briefly, why it carried an 18-game winning streak to Tucson.
Smith finally got a one-on-one matchup on the outside and fought off interference to catch senior quarterback Kylan Weisser’s dart and complete the 81-yard scoring play. A missed extra point did not dampen the Notre Dame side.
“We knew (Smith) was a great player from watching film, so what we did was try to double him every time. And we always knew where he was at,” Escobar, who also starts at safety, said. “The coaches put a lot of trust in us and (sophomore safety) Jaydin Young makes so many plays.”
The Saints defense got a stop and the offense moved on a pass interference call against Smith. But Weisser went deep a bit too predictably.
Hampton was ready for his jump ball and easily pulled it in at the Coyotes’ 47.
“It was good to have two weeks to prepare for them and all the trickery they have,” Hampton said. “I was mostly on No. 10 (Blake Storey) early but they weren’t looking to him much, so I the coaches moved me to No. 1 (Smith) so I could help on him. We were prepared for most things in the passing game after those three games (two against Liberty and one against Chaparral).”
Two plays later it was essentially over. Thomas ran through a couple of defenders for 23 yards. He finished with a staggering 273 yards on only 16 carries.
Then Beltran used the treat of his tailback to call his own number and stroll 30 yards untouched for the score and 35-6 lead just past the halfway mark of the third quarter.
It was merely filling out the score sheet from there. Sophomore backup quarterback Johnathan Morris tossed a 7-yard scoring pass to sophomore Dyelan Miller a minute into the fourth quarter.
The Saints scored twice after that, on Weisser’s 8-yard scramble and his 25-yard touchdown pass to senior tailback Fisher.
“Even though we were down late, they just didn’t give up,” first-year Notre Dame Prep coach George Prelock said. “I’m honored and humbled to be their coach. I couldn’t be prouder of these boys.”
There was no doubt, however, that this time around Centennial finished. This team entered the season with big expectations and those only grew after the Coyotes upset Florida superpower St. Thomas Aquinas 12-0 on Sept. 29.
Liberty crashed the party with a 21-19 upset of the then-nationally ranked Coyotes to end the regular season. A senior-dominated team added motivation from this loss to what had been its driving force for a year.
Most of the players who dominated Saturday were seniors, or juniors who started as sophomores last year. And all of them carried regrets from the 14-6 loss to Gilbert Williams Field in the 2016 5A final.
Centennial ran into a dominant defense that day. However, once the BlackHawks proved they could load the box and stop Thomas, the Coyotes struggled looking for a plan B.
Saturday, they were the ones dictating terms with a dominant defense that limited Notre Dame to 261 yards – 170 through the first three quarters. And the Coyotes unleashed an unstoppable offense that rolled up 478 yards in the second and third quarters alone, and finished with 540 in total.
As it always is in Coyote Country, the path to a trophy is paved on both sides of the line of scrimmage. The defensive line largely kept Fisher and Smith — a pair of 1,000-yard rushers — in check.
As for the six boys who play the bulk of the snaps on the offensive line. Once Thomas’ touchdown ignited the team, seniors Trevor Renfro, David Thomas and Christian Williams, and juniors Jacob Fyffe, Carson Keltner and Matthew Kudray had their way with the Saints’ front seven.
“After we opened it up, Zidane goes to work. We know if we open up those holes we know he’s gone,” Williams said. “We know our guys are putting the work in every night and it’s up to us to open the holes. Us and our defensive line — iron sharpens iron — we go at it every single day during practice.”
Centennial returns to Peoria with its sixth state title in 12th years. Three have come in the last four seasons.
Many programs have one moment in the sun before falling back in the pack. The Coyotes can now claim a dynasty in two different decades — the first three titles came in 2006-08.
“It’s hard, day after day, year after year. You have to have people like (Athletic Director Brett) Palmer, that help as much as they can. And you have to have a community that gives as much as they can. They are middle class, working class and they buy the most beautiful things for their kids. They are so giving. They help their kids and they help us. This community and our students make all that hard work rewarding,” Coach Taylor said.
Editor’s Note: Richard Smith is the Sports Editor for West Valley Preps.
Editor’s Note: Josh Martinez contributed to this report.