Three Scottsdale-area high schools make up the eight football teams that will compete in the inaugural Open Division playoffs for a state championship.
Saguaro, Horizon and Chaparral will all compete in the 8-team playoff, which pins the top eight programs from the 4A, 5A and 6A conferences against one another in a state-championship bracket.
Teams are chosen based on a formula used by the AIA, which takes into a team’s record and strength of schedule to compile the rankings.
The final rankings were released Saturday morning in Tempe during the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s bracket release show.
Saguaro, whose only loss this season came against California power Cathedral Catholic (San Diego, California) back in August, finished as the No. 3 seed in the Open Division bracket.
The Sabercats will take on fellow Scottsdale-area school Horizon in the opening round on Nov. 15. The Huskies finished as the 7-seed in the Open Division. It will be the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
“We just wanted to have a high seed and have a home playoff game,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said. “We are excited to be at home and it will be an exciting matchup against Horizon. A lot of our kids know each other, and we’ve never played, so that will be fun.”
The Sabercats have been dominant at the 4A level, winning the last six conference titles.
Saguaro last lost to an in-state school in 2015, when the Sabercats fell to Centennial and Pinnacle, who played a division up. Mohns regularly schedules out-of-state opponents early on in the season.
In recent years, Saguaro has faced Liberty (Henderson, Nevada), East (Salt Lake City, Utah) and Serra (Gardena, California) and most recently, Cathedral Catholic, among others.
Mohns believes matchups with out-of-state competition of that caliber helps prepare his team for the grind of the season. That remains especially true this year with the installment of the Open Division.
“We weren’t very comfortable being uncomfortable. We really played out of character in that game and against Chaparral in the first half,” Mohns said. “When you don’t get tested, you get comfortable and you just think you’re going to show up and beat teams.
“Those games prepare you to get in a dog fight and help you become a better team. That’s why we schedule those games.”
Chaparral was the final team to make the Open Division. As the 8-seed, the Firebirds will travel to take on top-ranked Chandler in what will likely be the team’s toughest test of the year.
“Chaparral is a great team,” Garretson said. “We’ve played them quite a few times in the passing tournaments so we are a little familiar with them in that.
“It’s going to be a great game and we are proud to represent the Premier Region in the super-8 as the 1-seed.”
Along with the Scottsdale-area schools, Chandler and Hamilton will take part in the tournament representing the Premier Region. It’s the second straight year the Wolves enter the postseason as the No. 1 overall team.
They’ve won three straight championships.
“You have to earn each win now that it’s one-and-done,” Chandler coach Rick Garretson said. “If you don’t bring your A-game, you’re going to be out. My staff knows how to prepare for two weeks.
“We will have those kids ready.”
Hamilton, who won just three games last season, finished 8-2 after nearly knocking off Chandler in the regular-season finale. The Huskies finished as the No. 7 seed and will face second-ranked Centennial.
“We feel good about everything we’ve done,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said. “We’ve improved throughout the season. We’ve learned from all of our setbacks and we are excited to move forward.”
After winning just three games in 2018, Zdebski’s first year, the Huskies look to be back to their old ways. Led by a plethora of senior talent on both sides of the ball, Hamilton has been dominant at times this season.
Salpointe Catholic (4) from Tucson and Pinnacle (5) also made the Open Division bracket after finishing a combined 17-2 this season.
Salpointe Catholic was the second-ranked team for several weeks before the final rankings came out, but a canceled game likely made the Lancers drop to No. 4 as they only played nine games.
All eight teams will have a week off before the Open Division begins on Friday, Nov. 15. The semifinals will take place on Saturday, Nov. 23 with the state championship game on Saturday, Dec. 7 at 4 p.m. at Arizona State’s Sun Devil Stadium.