Notre Dame Prep had been here before. A year ago, the Saints cruised through a magnificent season and negotiated the 5A playoff field to the championship game, where Centennial left no doubt that it was the better team.
On Dec. 1 at Sun Devil Stadium, the undefeated Saints had another chance to make their point against the top-ranked Coyotes. The Saints just couldn’t make enough of them. Not even close.
Centennial, making a strong case that it is the top team in the state regardless of classification, rolled past Notre Dame, 60-7, to successfully defend its 5A state title.
A year earlier, Centennial won 42-21.
Centennial took command early, up 39-0 at halftime, and never let up.
“I had a lot of respect for Notre Dame. Everything they were doing was fundamentally sound,” Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. “I’ve been on the other end of that, where you prepare very hard but the other team gets momentum and you just can’t get it stopped.
“Congratulations to Notre Dame on an outstanding season.”
The Coyotes (14-0) will play in the Geico State Championship Series against a team to be determined at a site in the Valley to be determined on Dec. 22, according to Taylor. Game officials have not yet confirmed that.
Notre Dame (13-1) opened well, driving to the Centennial 29, but a fourth-down interception ended the drive, and the rout was on. Three plays later Coyotes quarterback Jonathan Morris ran 64 yards for a touchdown.
Before the half ended, Centennial’s A.J. Jackson had scored on an 88-yard punt return, 35-yard interception return and 24-yard reception from Morris.
“Yeah, those scores were deflating, but so is every other score we give up,” Notre Dame coach George Prelock said.
The game went into running time under Arizona Interscholastic Association rules for a point spread of 42 point or greater by the 8:08 mark in the third quarter.
Notre Dame made it to the championship game on the backs of its defense, which gave up 14 points in the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds.
The huge Centennial offensive line’s blocking was too much for the Saints to handle, in turn allowing Morris to find open receivers when he put it up. He passed only 13 times.
Centennial was equally dominant on defense. The Saints could not keep their offense on the field, so their defense often faced bad field position and fatigue.
Because of the Saints’ limited rushing attack (56 yards) the Coyotes could double-cover Notre Dame receiver Jake Smith, Notre Dame’s biggest threat to make a big play. The rest of the defensive backs held their own in one-on-one coverage as the Coyotes collected five interceptions.
Taylor gave the credit to his assistant coaches, whom he said watched hours of game film and had a near-perfect defensive strategy.
“When you give our coaches, and I’m not talking about me, two weeks to prepare they can make something special happen,” he said.
Down more than 50 points in the second half, Saints junior linebacker Brock Locnikar still waved his hands to pump up the crowd after tackles and big hits, as if the game was still on the line.
“My background comes from wrestling and fighting. So, when you get backed down, put on the ropes, I can just never give up,” Locnikar said. “Yeah, it sucks we lost, but even at that point, every little victory you have should be celebrated, no matter what it is.”
Prelock said the fight his team showed proves how much respect his players have for each other and an appreciation of how far they’d come as a group.
“It’s just tremendous. These boys didn’t quit. Nobody thought we’d make it this far, and I’m just proud to be their coach,” Prelock said.
Centennial ends its season 14-0 with back-to-back 5A championships. Notre Dame’s ends 13-1.
Centennial 60, Notre Dame Prep 7
Notre Dame Prep 0 0 7 0 – 7
Centennial 7 32 14 7 – 60
CEN – Morris 64 run (Rodriguez kick), 6:58.
CEN – Jackson 88 punt return (Rodriguez kick), 11:38.
CEN – Jackson 35 interception return (Rodriguez kick), 11:13.
CEN – Miller 20 pass from Morris (Rodriguez kick), 6:25.
CEN – FG, Rodriguez 22, 3:38.
CEN – Jackson 24 pass from Morris (Miller pass from Brooks), 0:47.
CEN – Haney 35 interception return (Rodriguez kick), 8:08.
NDP – Gray 58 pass from Farrell (Chewning kick), 2:25.
CEN – Young 34 run (Rodriguez kick), 1:45.
CEN – James 3 run (Rodriguez kick), 3:28.
First downs 13 14
Rush-yards 24-56 28-277
Comp-Att-Int 20-41-5 7-15-2
Pass yard 218 90
Total yards 274 367
Fumbles/lost 0-0 0-0
Penalties 5-36 8-83
Notre Dame Prep – Mastro 16-46, Siegel 2-15, Moore 3-9, Smith 2-(-1), Farrell 1-(-13). Centennial – Morris 3-73, Walker 7-63, Young 4-56, Fountain 4-46, Haney 1-14, Jacob 3-12, James 3-11, Lindholm 1-6, Stark 1-(-2), Hovatter 1-(-2).
Notre Dame Prep – Farrell 20-41-5, 218 yards. Centennial – Morris 6-13-2, 85; Fountain 1-1-0, 5; Walker 0-1-0, 0.
Notre Dame Prep – Smith 6-42, Gray 3-69, Mastro 3-44, Roberts 3-26, Siegel 2-12, Brodar 2-11, Fleitz 1-14. Centennial – Miller 2-31, Jackson 2-29, Young 1-20, Stark 1-5, Leiva 1-5.