The anticipation was immense and the controversy was expected. The AIA Executive Board adopted an “Open Division” for football on Jan. 22 and the following eight months was filled with speculation and, more speculation and that didn’t change on Tuesday when the initial rankings were released.
California adopted a similar model a decade earlier with the belief that the top teams, regardless of classification, should play each other in the postseason. The dominance of Scottsdale Saguaro since 2006 is also a variable some have turned to when pushing for a playoff system that helps decide a “true” state champion.
Playing a level (or two) below the powerful 6A and 5A teams Arizona has to offer, The Saguaro Sabercats have 11 state championship trophies since 2006, including the last six in a row. In the modern 4A configuration, the Sabercats beat Salpointe 24-3 in the 2016 semifinal round, beat Catalina Foothills 42-14 in the 2016 state championship game, beat Salpointe 28-7 in the 2017 title game and then beat Salpointe 42-16 last year to win it all again. In theory, the Lancers could be playing for their fourth championship in a row if Saguaro was moved up for the postseason.
Likewise, the rest of the teams in the 4A conference are probably pushing for the Lancers to join the Sabercats in the Open Division. And here we are.
As expected, Chandler (5-0) came out on top of the Open Division rankings but Salpointe, not Saguaro, Hamilton (6-0) or Centennial (4-1) took the second spot with a 4-0 record. Saguaro? If the season ended today, the Sabercats would be the top seed in the 4A playoffs because, at 5-1, Saguaro is ranked No. 9 in a bracket with room for only eight teams.
The controversy is intensified because Tucson Sahuaro (6-0) is ranked No. 7 in the Open Division. Salpointe is slated to make a visit to Sahuro this Friday night so some are figuring Sahuaro will move out of the Open Division and Saguaro will move in which means, yes, the rankings will change every week.
Pump the breaks.
The rankings will change every week, just like last year and the year before that. And so on. The season is not ending today or next week. The first round of the Open Division is scheduled for Nov. 15. Things will change.
The Open Division will pull the top eight from 4A, 5A and 6A. Meanwhile, those eight teams will also be ranked in their respective conferences. For instance, Salpointe is No. 2 in the Open Division and also No. 1 in the 4A Conference.
In 5A and 6A, the top 16 ranked teams will make the conference playoffs AFTER the teams competing in the Open Division have been removed. So, if four 6A teams qualify for the Open Division then teams ranked 5-20 will be seeded 1-16 in the 6A state bracket. Same for 5A.
For 2A to 4A, the top team in each region will earn an automatic playoff berth. If a 4A team is moved to the Open Division then the remaining teams will be seeded 1-16. For 1A, the region champion qualifies automatically for the 12-team bracket.
According to the rankings, Salpointe is the top team, followed by Sahuaro and then Canyon del Oro. As of now, the projected playoff teams from Southern Arizona would be:
5A: Buena, Nogales, Cienega and Ironwood Ridge.
4A: Salpointe, Sahuaro, Canyon del Oro, Walden Grove and Pueblo.
2A: Santa Cruz, Benson and Bisbee.
Tucson (6A) might be too far out for a playoff shot, especially with Chandler visiting in late October, but the Badgers can win the 6A Metro championship with one more win. All other regions are too far out to predict.
Andy Morales was recognized by the AIA as the top high school reporter in 2014 and he was awarded the Ray McNally Award in 2017 and he has been a youth, high school and college coach for over 30 years. His own children have won multiple state high school championships and were named to all-state teams. Competing in hockey, basketball, baseball and track & field in high school, his unique perspective can only be found here and on AZPreps365.com. Andy is the Southern Arizona voting member of the Ed Doherty Award, recognizing the top football player in Arizona, and he was named a Local Hero by the Tucson Weekly for 2016. Andy was named an Honorary Flowing Wells Caballero in 2019. Contact Andy Morales at firstname.lastname@example.org