east valley

American Leadership Academy – Queen Creek senior quarterback Drew Cowart has led the Patriots to the No. 7 ranking in the Open Division and the only 5A team to make the elite eight. (Andy Silvas/Contributor)

It’s been widely regarded by national media outlet MaxPreps as one of the top football postseason tournaments in the county.

Arizona’s Open Division has had its critics in the past, especially those who believe it may no longer be needed with some of the top programs in the state all at the 6A level. But it’s remained intact, and the Arizona Interscholastic Association has said it will continue to be.

What that brings to Arizona high school football coaches, players and fans is a new level of excitement on Nov. 25. The best against the best. And the East Valley and Scottsdale is yet again well represented.

No. 2 Basha vs No. 8 American Leadership Academy – Queen Creek

Basha locked up the No. 2 seed in the tournament after taking down Hamilton and Chandler in consecutive weeks, a first for the Bears in their history. At the time, both programs were nationally ranked – Chandler as high as No. 9 in the country.

It was two of four nationally ranked opponents Basha faced this year. The Bears beat California’s Los Alamitos, which featured two of the top players in the country, to start the season and fell to Liberty out of Peoria, the No. 1 team entering the Open Division playoffs.

The loss to Liberty came before wins over Hamilton, Chandler, Casteel and Perry to close out the season. Simply put, it helped Basha reset.

“Liberty got us last night and it definitely set off the fire to get ready to face Hamilton and Chandler,” Basha assistant coach Blake Silberschlag said. “The mindset is ALA – Queen Creek is up first. They score a lot of points, and they have a lot of really talented kids. They’re going to get our best shot and we’re going to get their best shot. We’ll see what happens from there.”

Like all other Open Division teams, Basha used the week off before the postseason to recover and prepare for American Leadership Academy – Queen Creek, the only 5A team to make it in the elite eight.

Key matchups will include Basha’s talented secondary featuring Oregon commit Cole Martin and another star on the other side in Miles Lockhart against ALA wideouts Ryan Meza, Jayden Williams and athlete Bubba Agne – who splits time at running back with Mitch Jensen.

The Patriots made a big jump to get into the Open Division. They were behind both Sandra Day O’Connor, the No. 8 seed, and Highland, a team most wanted to see in. But ALA got the nod, and head coach Ty Detmer said his players are up for the challenge yet again.

ALA made the Open Division last year at the same position dan faced Hamilton. The Patriots played the Huskies close for a half before a lack of depth got the best of them.

They feel they’re better off this season, but it comes against an opponent that yet again features one of the top quarterbacks in the country in junior Demond Williams. Basha’s high-powered offense with Deshaun Buchanan at running back and Bryson Dedmon at wideout, among others, will challenge the Patriots.

But this ALA team is one that has scored over 40 points in all but one game this season with Drew Cowart leading the way at quarterback. They have fire power, too.

“We’re gelling at the right time,” Detmer said. “This group hangs in there, they play hard together and they trust each other. I’m really proud of the effort they’ve been able to give week in and week out.

“We’re the type of team that can give some teams problems because our coordinators are really good and we’ve got 26 seniors that have a lot of maturity and experience. It’s a great group.”

No. 3 Chandler vs No. 6 Centennial

One of the surprises of the Open Division was Chandler remaining at No. 3 over No. 4 Hamilton, which beat the Wolves in the final game of the regular season two weeks ago.

But Chandler coach Rick Garretson said he and his team have put that behind them. They know what they’re capable of, and they have the talent to make it happen.

“I’ve always thought that if we play our A-game, I like our chances,” Garretson said. “We didn’t play our A-game the other night on offense. We didn’t play our A-game against Basha. It’s time to gear it up.”

Chandler will open the postseason against Centennial, a scrappy team that has once again become a power out of the West Valley. Garretson knows they have a strong defense and offense that, if given the opportunity, can pour on the points.

The Wolves, just like they did entering the season, feel overlooked. They’ve heard the critics say they’re not as strong as they used to be. They have heard early predictions from some that say Centennial will pull off the upset.

But that doesn’t matter to them. They have confidence in junior quarterback Dylan Raiola. They have confidence in sophomore running back Xavier Valdivia, who may once again lead the backfield with junior Ca’lil Valentine injured. And they know they’re defense is still one of the best in the country.

“Our defense played very well both of those games,” Garretson said of his team’s two losses. “We prep hard. Our kids prep hard. Our coaches prep hard. You do everything you can as far as preparation and let the chips fall where they may.”

No. 4 Hamilton vs No. 5 Saguaro

Perhaps one of the best matchups of the four is Hamilton hosting Saguaro. The two have become rivals in recent years, meeting in the semifinals of the Open Division in 2019, a nationally televised game in 2020 and last year again in the semifinals.

The Sabercats upset the Huskies last season, but both teams know they’ve reloaded since then.

The Sabercats enter as the No. 5 seed after losing three games in the regular season. They felt counted out. They felt overlooked. They set out to prove themselves and have played a good brand of football since adopting the mindset that playoffs started for them early in the regular season.

“We knew if we wanted to get in, we had to win after that Liberty game,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said. “The biggest thing early on we were struggling with was execution. We watch film and we walk away knowing we are right there. It forced us to have way more urgency and to show up and execute.”

Devon Dampier has once again proven himself at quarterback, and the duo of Jaedon Matthews and Zaccheus Cooper at running back with him have complimented his game. Saguaro has once again dealt with injuries, but it still managed to win out and secure the Open Division spot.

But in comes a Hamilton team fresh off a win over rival Chandler. The Huskies also felt disrespected that Chandler remained ahead of them in the rankings. But now they’ve put that behind them.

Quarterback Beckham Pellant has been electric since taking over for the injured Roch Cholowsky. He almost led Hamilton to a win over Basha and orchestrated a game-winning drive against the Wolves. He’s ready for the spotlight, and so are all the players around him.

“For us, it’s getting ready for the next game but with that, somebody’s season is going to end,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said. “They’ve ended our season the last two out of three. At some point, we need to fix that, correct that and get over that hump. We need to play a complete game.

“We need to win this game.”

The winner of Hamilton-Saguaro will face the winner of No. 1 Liberty vs No. 8 Sandra Day O’Connor. The Open Division playoffs kickoff Friday at 7 p.m.