As Notre Dame Preparatory constructed an undefeated season en route to the 5A state championship game, the Saints used not only their talent but also a level of emotion.
NDP cruised through the regular season beating teams by an average of about 24 points with close wins over Desert Edge and Chaparral high schools. Through the playoffs, the Saints blew out Desert Edge in the first round before digging out two close games to reach the state finals.
This season came on the heels of a pair of Arizona Interscholastic Association violations that led to a playoff ban, the firing of the former head coach and resignation of the school president.
In the wake of those events, Head Coach George Prelock made the jump from the freshmen team to varsity.
These events led quarterback Kylan Weisser to say the team came into this season with added motivation.
“We’re that team that’s going to get everybody’s best game,” he said in a Nov. 28 interview. “We came in with (the mindset) we’re going to give it our all and we’re going to do everything we can to be the best.”
The No. 4 Saints will need everything it has as it will face No. 2 Centennial High School at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 2 at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.
The Coyotes have motivation as well. They made it to the state championship last year but fell to Williams Field High School. This 25-senior team is now looking for redemption.
Looking at Centennial as a whole, Coach Prelock said his team will have its hands full because the Coyotes are an impeccable football team.
“When it comes down to it, they’re in the state championship for a reason,” he said in a Nov. 28 interview. “They’re big, they’re physical, they’re well-coached — Coach (Richard) Taylor does a great job. There’s a reason they’re a perennial powerhouse.”
The Saints’ defense will look to slow a Coyote squad that is averaging more than 31 points per game. Running back Zidane Thomas is a key part of Centennial’s offense.
Thomas — who stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs 205 pounds — has accumulated 1,841 on 190 carries good enough for 24 touchdowns. He also averages almost 10 yards per carry, according to maxpreps.com.
Another offensive threat for Centennial is running back Alex Escobar. He leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns as well as contributing to the rushing attack.
Centennial also features a blistering defense that allows about 10 points per game with five shutouts, including a 12–0 win over Fort Lauderdale, Fla. powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas. It redeemed its only loss of the season with a semifinal defeat of Liberty High School.
Strong Safety Jaydin Young leads the Coyotes in tackles while defensive end Jacob Franklin posted a team-high six tackles for loss.
In the secondary, cornerback Dominique Hampton, a University of Washington commit, leads a group of three players with multiple interceptions. Hampton has made six.
Weisser — who has tossed 1,907 yards on 148 attempts for 26 touchdowns and three interceptions this year — said Centennial’s defensive line and secondary stand out to him the most.
“They have strong, upfront kids,” he said. “I saw a few of their players when we went to media day. They have some big kids.”
In Peoria, Centennial Head Coach Richard Taylor is keeping an eye on NDP’s full house backfield that features the trio of running backs Jake Smith and Cole Fisher as well as fullback Victor Annoreno.
Both Smith and Fisher are top rushers for the Saints as both have more than 1,000 yards. Fisher has a slight edge with 1,370 yards and 23 touchdowns
“No one does that (offense) anymore. I ran that for about 10 years in Ohio and I love that offense. I think it’s a really good offense,” Coach Taylor said in a recent interview.
“I think that is their offense and that is what they want to do. If you start slowing them down, they go to other formations. They widen out. But they come back to it, or they try to.”
Coach Taylor also said Smith is a tough one to pin down because of his abilities as a receiver and how he lines up everywhere on the field. Smith has reeled in 966 yards on 30 catches and 14 touchdowns.
The Centennial offensive line will have its hands full as linebackers Vincent Elrod, Joey Jaquint and Joseph De La Vara all have more than 90 tackles and double-digit tackles for loss.
NDP’s defense also features free safety Ricky Manning (98 tackles and 14.5 tackles for loss) and defensive end Kyle White (85 tackles and 20 tackles for loss).
“They flow to the ball very well,” Centennial center Carson Keltner said in a recent interview. “They’re really, really fast. That’s something we automatically take in, their linebackers always fill in the gaps.”
It’s been almost a decade since NDP last won a state championship, five years since it was even in the playoffs.
Coach Prelock said the Saints have not let that pressure get to them because they’ve handled the season progressively instead of as a whole.
This hasn’t been too hard of a task, Coach Prelock said, because the team has had “wild emotions” for the past year and a half. Those uncertainties and emotions, he said, have helped prepare the Saints for this stage.
“Our kids have remained focused and they’ve stayed on task,” Coach Prelock said. “They’re able to do that one rep at a time because they know if you focus on the little things it’ll translate into a bigger picture.”
Editor’s Note: Richard Smith of West Valley Preps contributed quotes to this report.