Notre Dame Prep, Centennial gear up for 5A state rematch

The Notre Dame Prep defense swarms the Sunnyslope ball carrier during the Saints’ 41-27 win Aug. 24. (Photo Courtesy of Mike Harvey/Peak Image Photo)

To a man, Peoria Centennial High School football coaches and players believe the Notre Dame Preparatory team they will play in Saturday’s 5A state title game at Sun Devil Stadium is better than the one the Coyotes defeated for the trophy last year.

The Saints’ return would have been a major surprise in August, since they lost all but three 2017 starters to graduation. Yet the No. 3 seed is once again 13-0 and booked its title trip by holding off a late comeback from No. 2 Gilbert Williams Field in a 21-14 semifinal win Friday, Nov. 17.

“They really jelled well. To have to deal with basically a new starting lineup, they’ve really played well together. They came out of that hole that most people tried to put them in having all those new starters. They’re undefeated for a reason,” Centennial senior slotback Jeiel Stark said.

A Notre Dame Prep defender deflects an attempted pass during the 5A state championship game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

The problem for the Saints and the rest of Arizona? Centennial’s 2018 team has been demonstrably better than its 2017 team all fall.

Other than a 13-7 victory against Las Vegas megapower Bishop Gorman Friday, Aug. 31, the Coyotes have not been pushed. They outscored their other 12 opponents, all Arizona 5A teams, 551-71. And these were not pushovers.

Centennial dominated quarterfinal teams from Peoria Sunrise Mountain, Queen Creek Casteel, Goodyear Millennium and Vail Cienega (twice) high schools.

“Just like last year, they’re big, they’re physical, they’re well-coached. Their defense flies around the ball and their offense pushes people around. They’ve got playmakers and skill guys that can really get the ball in the end zone and make big plays,” NDP Head Coach George Prelock said.

“They are the staple of 5A. They’ve done a great job and there’s a reason why they’re in this position year in and year out.”

But even Centennial’s previous six state champions were rarely this dominant throughout the course of a season — save for perhaps the undefeated 2006 and 2008 champs.

Other than the Gorman game, the closest thing to adversity experienced by this team probably was that initial Gilbert Higley High School touchdown two weeks ago. So the veterans are digging into recent seasons for a frame of reference.

“I think the captains have been through a lot of adversity in our sophomore and junior years. We got beat by Desert Edge and we weren’t expecting it. It’s not like we haven’t been thrown into those type of situations,” senior center Carson Keltner said. “This year we haven’t except for once, but I think we can handle it.”

The Coyotes have taken note of the Saints’ improvements across the board, particularly on defense.

The Notre Dame Prep Saints shake hands with the Centennial Coyotes after the 5A state championship game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Notre Dame Prep enters allowing just under 20 points per game, which is actually a point more than at this point in 2017. But this year, NDP proved it can win high-level playoff games with defense.

The Saints squeaked by Queen Creek 34-31 and Cienega 37-34 to reach last year’s final. Conversely, they’re back after a 14-0 shutout of Millennium and a goal line stand against Williams Field.

“That linebacker, the MMA guy, he can run and hit. But I would say their whole defensive line has been pretty stout all year long. Their defensive backs play well together,” Centennial Head Coach Richard Taylor said.

“All three phases of the game are polished. Their special teams do stuff that make you prepare and take time away from other things. You’ve got to work on a swinging gate, because they not only line up in it, they’ve got five different plays in it. They’re a better version of what they were last year.”

The “MMA guy” that leads the charge defensively is junior linebacker Brock Locnikar, who has 118 solo tackles.
Locnikar is part of a largely new cast of players who may have been a part of last year’s team but didn’t see the field as much. That is where returners such as senior receiver Jake Smith come into play.

Coach Prelock said his returners remember vividly what happened last year and are learning from that result.

“They just saw how it turned out last year and they know it’s their senior season, they don’t want that same outcome,” he said.

“They’ve made sure that the focus is there and the intensity this week has really picked up, which is exactly what we need and that intensity actually started last week. They’ve been instrumental in helping these younger guys.”

Even though most of the lineup is new, the moment should not be too big for the Saints.

“It’s helped (being there last year). You’re not in awe of everything (this year),” Coach Prelock said.

“Like I said, you just try and take it one day at a time. Some of the kids that went to media day last year, we only had one of them return but the other kids have played a prominent role that were there this year. They’ve taken everything in stride. They’re more worried about coming out to practice and working hard.”

NDP Head Coach George Prelock speaks to his team after the 5A state championship at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

In the 2017 final, a 21-point second quarter put the Coyotes in the drivers seat. This year’s team has shown the same ability to blow a game wide open with a first-half spurt, scoring 21 first-quarter points on Higley after then Knights’ opening drive.

“We can’t let the game get away from us. Last year after the first quarter, it was tied at 0-0 and they scored like that and by halftime, it was 21-0. We dug ourselves a hole in that game that we couldn’t climb out of,” Smith said.

“I think that’s what we have to do because they’re a phenomenal team and we’re going to have to play our best. If mistakes happen, we’re going to have to limit those mistakes to as few as we can.”

Smith remains the Saints’ great equalizer. The University of Texas-bound multi-hypen threat has 1,070 yards and 22 touchdowns on 58 catches and 751 yards and 14 touchdowns on 100 carries.

He’s surrounded by tall targets on intermediate routes like seniors Zack Gray and Luke Roberts. New quarterback Jake Farrell has thrown for 3,230 yards and 41 touchdowns.

And junior tailback Dominick Mastro allowed Smith to cut back on his carries this year. Mastro has rushed for 1,553 yards and 13 touchdowns behind the Saints big, talented and young line.

“(Mastro) has taken on a lot of the load of running. They use (Smith) in a lot of different ways on offense. He is more productive and taking less hits, which I think is pretty smart,” Coach Taylor said.

“He is still phenomenal. He’s double covered and goes up between people and gets the ball — and he comes down on balance and they fall down, and he runs for a touchdown. He’s a very gifted guy.”

Centennial is missing an early season starter, as senior linebacker M.J. Walker has been out for the playoffs with an injury. Junior Seth Lane and senior A.J. Jackson have filled in — with Jackson bringing a safety’s coverage abilities to the linebacker spot.

Given all that Centennial will throw at the Saints, Coach Prelock said he is proud of how his younger players have risen to the challenge of a tough state championship game.

“They’ve picked up their tempo and they know what’s at stake,” Coach Prelock said. “It’s nice to be there. We’re grateful enough to get there last year and blessed enough to be back there this year but these opportunities really don’t come around a lot so you have to make the most of them.”

Editor’s Note: Richard Smith is the West Valley Preps sports editor for the Daily News Sun.

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