Las Vegas Sun editors Ray Brewer and Case Keefer go through every division and team in the 4A and 3A high school football classifications in their annual season-opening podcast.
Realignment may have its biggest impact in the Northwest League.
Legacy, a power rushing team and perennial playoff qualifier, has been moved to the Northeast League for this season, which begins today. The Longhorns were replaced in the Northwest by Bonanza, a team that missed the playoffs last season.
That should free up one Northwest playoff spot behind preseason top-5 programs Arbor View and Faith Lutheran — the consensus picks to finish atop the division. More important, realignment also provides a clear path for a Northwest League team to reach the state championship game.
But Gorman’s Southwest League has been realigned to the new Mountain Region, meaning Arbor View — or Faith Lutheran, or Desert Pines from the new region’s Northeast League — will be playing in the first week of December for state.
Not so fast, says Arbor View coach Dan Barnson. He’s been a coach for nearly three decades in Las Vegas and remembers some seasons when the first game wasn’t until September. This year, his team plays three times in August, meaning anything can happen on the way to a potential playoff run.
“That’s a long ways away,” Barnson said of potentially reaching state.
The four-time defending Northwest champion Aggies, which have won 42 games in the past four seasons, is again loaded. They return running back Kyle Graham, who gained nearly gained 700 yards last season, and a three-year starter at quarterback in Logan Bollinger.
Defensively, senior linebackers JJ Tuinei and Billy Davis, and defensive back Niles Scafati give the Aggies a core group of experienced players.
“The kids have put in a lot of work since December,” Barnson said. “As a coach, I am excited to see how that works. We know what that (could) mean.”
Faith Lutheran, who last season lost to Arbor View by just three points, will again be the Aggies’ top threat. The Crusaders return a three-year contributor at quarterback in Sagan Gronauer, who passed for 2,398 yards and 22 touchdowns last season.
They also have many defensive standouts in linebackers Ma’a Gaoteote, a sophomore who is already committed to USC, and junior Hunter Kaupiko (107 tackles in 2017). Also, defensive lineman DJ Heckard at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds is expected to be a force.
Faith Lutheran will be tested in the nonconference season with games against four respectable out-of-state opponents.
“It is what we need to do to push our program in the right direction,” Faith Lutheran coach Vernon Fox said of the challenging schedule.
The league’s other teams will also be in contention.
Take Palo Verde, which had a double-digit, second-half lead last season against Faith Lutheran before losing late. And Cimarron-Memorial, which returns running back Jordan Norwood (600 yards and 5 TDs in 2017) and features junior offensive lineman Mike Overland, who projects to be a top recruit.
Palo Verde, which opened in 1996, has never missed the postseason.
“The biggest thing for us will be health; we don’t have a ton of depth,” Palo Verde coach Joe Azranez said. “But I like where we are at on both sides of the ball with the guys we have penciled in as starters. ... We go in with the expectation that we have to put our best 11 guys on the field. If it’s the same 11 on offense, it may be the same 11 on defense. We’ll get them tough.”
Centennial, after missing the playoffs last season in a rebuilding season, may still be one year away from competing for the league crown. But there is no mistaking the Bulldogs’ talented younger players, especially in the class of 2020.
Junior defensive end Samie Wallace, wide receiver Aaron Johnson and running back Jordan Smith will get valuable experience this season, and could possible help Centennial find the postseason.
“I’m looking for our defense to be really good and really improved, and help us win some games,” Centennial coach Dustin Forshee said of his defense, which returns virtually all of its starters from 2017.
Shadow Ridge, which has been on the verge of a postseason berth the past two seasons, returns Kody Presser — a four-year varsity player — at quarterback. But will it be enough to push the Mustangs, which dropped their final three games of 2017, into the playoffs?
“I am excited about the progress our kids have made. They have got a lot stronger and a lot faster in the weight room,” Shadow Ridge coach Travis Foster said.
Newbie Bonanza has experience at quarterback in returner Kyle Allison, who passed for 800 yards last season as a junior. It also brings back Justin Bacon at running back. By the time league play rolls around, coach Dion Lee hopes his squad will be ready to impact the standings.
“We are ready to go. This is the best-looking time in my three years (here),” Lee said.
Last Year’s Finish: Arbor View, Faith Lutheran, Legacy, Palo Verde, Shadow Ridge, Centennial, Cimarron-Memorial
Projected 2018 finish: Arbor View, Faith Lutheran, Palo Verde, Centennial, Shadow Ridge, Cimarron-Memorial, Bonanza
Arbor View: Running back Bubba Graham, linebacker JJ Tuinei, defensive back Niles Scafati
Bonanza: Running back Justin Bacon, Kyle Allison, safety Armani Burns
Centennial: Defensive back Kamden Garrett, running back Jordan Smith, defensive back Samie Wallace
Cimarron-Memorial: Lineman Mike Overland, running back Jordan Norwood, defensive lineman Adrian Alonso
Faith Lutheran: Quarterback Sagan Gronauer, defensive end DJ Heckard, linebacker Ma’a Gaoteote
Palo Verde: Lineman Jonah Singer, safety Karsonne Winters, running back Mike Torres
Shadow Ridge: Quarterback Kody Presser, running back Anthony Wheaton, lineman Ahmad Morris
Offensive MVP: Faith Lutheran’s Gronauer
Defensive MVP: Arbor View’s Tuinei
Coach of the Year: Palo Verde’s Joe Aznarez
Game of the Year: Palo Verde 21, Centennial 18