5 takeaways from Arizona high school football championships media day

It was a crowded scene inside Barro's Pizza in Gilbert on Tuesday as eight high school football teams with championship hopes gathered for the Arizona Interscholastic Association's media day.

The AIA does this every year but it seemed like there were more people on hand than during past AIA football championship media days. With the 4A, 5A, 6A and Open championship left to be played this weekend at Sun Devil Stadium, here are five takeaways from Tuesday's event.

Full squad

American Leadership Academy Gilbert North coach Randy Ricedorff brought his entire team to media day. A select five were chosen to be introduced. "I want them to take it all in," said Ricedorff, who noted that the school is only about eight miles away.

"It's fun to be surrounded by the best teams in the state," said Ricedorff, who is playing Snowflake on Friday for the 4A championship a year after both schools were playing in 3A. "We're happy to see our program be a part of it."

ALA Gilbert North has one of the most explosive offenses in the state, behind senior quarterback Adam Damante and junior wide receiver Brandon Phelps, who have hooked up for 26 touchdowns this season among the 56 TD passes that Northern Arizona-bound Damante has thrown.

Two years ago, ALA Gilbert North lost to Snowflake 28-27 in overtime in the 3A semifinals. Snowflake went on to win the first of back-to-back 3A titles. Damante threw for 385 yards but only one TD in that game.

"We're past that now and ready to play them again," Damante said. "They've gotten a lot better. Their defense has gotten a lot better than the last time we played them so it will be a huge challenge for us."

Thanking wives

Gilbert Highland coach Brock Farrel, during his introduction surrounded by players, thanked all the wives of the coaches putting up with the coaches being absent since August and letting them know they'll be getting them back after this weekend.

When Scottsdale Saguaro coach Jason Mohns came up the podium with his players, he echoed Farrel's sentiments.

"I better cover that or I'll get in trouble," Mohns said.

Mohns also was thankful that the Open Division state championship game Saturday night at 6 p.m., will be played on live TV with Arizona's Family doing it on channels 3 and 5.

This is the first time it's been on live TV since 2015. But Mohns remembers his first time as head coach in the state championship coming in 2013 being on live TV. He has been to nine championship media days in teh past 10 years, missing out only in 2020, when Saguaro was forced to forfeit a first-round playoff game because of a COVID outbreak. This might be Mohns' last. He's been mum on it, but It's highly anticipated that Mohns will be joining Kenny Dillingham's staff at Arizona State after the Open Division championship game.

Mohns also congratulated Ricedorff and Snowflake coach Kay Solomon for elevating from 3A to 4A to end up meeting for the championship. The same with Glendale Cactus moving from 4A to play in the 5A final, and Gilbert Higley, once a 4A school, playing in the 5A championship game.

ASU eyes Pinnacle's Duce Robinson, Highland's Caleb Lomu

No doubt, new Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham was going to come in hard after some of the top high school seniors in the state after he was hired. Pinnacle 6-foot-6 tight end/wide receiver Duce Robinson, a five-star recruit in both football and baseball, who had a monster game against Casteel in the 6A semifinals, said he has spoken to Dillinghman. But he doesn't plan on signing until February, he said.

"I've been talking to Coach Dillingham," Robinson said. "I'm excited about his hire."

Highland offensive lineman Caleb Lomu, who committed to Utah in June, was offered by ASU before Dillingham came on board. But Dillingham is hoping to flip him before next week's early small-window signing period. But it might be too late. Lomu has family in Utah. That's where he's from.

"I was talking to the (ASU) coaches," Lomu said. "They're pretty big on in-state recruiting now.

"It kind of stinks that it didn't happen a year earlier so I can look more into it. But I'm pretty set on Utah. Utah's my home."

Gilbert Higley coach Eddy Zubey, as he was leaving media day, tried to make a last-diitch effort on Pinnacle offensive tackle Elijah Paige to flip from USC to ASU by saying, "Go Devils." Paige, in turn, said, "Fight on," which is the USC fight song.

First big stage

This is the first time on the big state for Pinnacle (in 6A) and Chandler Basha (in the Open). this is the first time Pinnacle coach Dana Zupke in his 20 years leading the program has taken the Pioneers to the final. For Saguaro, which plays Basha in the Open final, the Sabercats are trying to become the second team to repeat as Open champions after missing the 2020 Open playoffs due to COVID-19. Chandler won the first two Open state titles in 2019 and '20.

But this isn't the first time on the big stage for two of Basha's best players -- cornerback Cole Martin (Oregon commit) and running back Dashaun Buchanan (Idaho commit). They started as sophomores for Hamilton in the 2020 Open final, a last-minute loss to Chandler. He remembers facing then Chandler QB Mikey Keene and wide receiver Kyione Grayes.

"You've got to really look at it as another game," Martin said.

But since the 35-7 loss to Peoria Liberty, this has been a different Basha team, one that has been playing with greater intensity and laser-sharp focus. To go through Hamilton and Chandler twice in the last month are huge confidence boosters for the Bears.

"When it comes to big games, we raise our intensity," Martin said. "We fly after the ball. We make tackles. And we're involved in big plays."

Leaving a legacy

Cactus got to the Open last year, before losing to Saguaro in the quarterfinals. The Cobras didn't get to the Open this year, but they have a chance to win the 5A title, which would be the school's first since 2009. Coach Brian Belles was the defensive coordinator then. The defense has been stellar but will be asked one more time to slow down a high-ocane attack in Higley, which is led by sophomore quarterback Jamar Malone II and his two 1,000-yard receivers, Carter Hancock and Dom Esposito.

Cactus held defending champion Horizon to 18 points a week after Horizon hung 49 points on Gilbert. Cactus last week in the semifinals held top-seeded Notre Dame Prep to 17 points a week after NDP scored 65 points against Marana.

"I'm humbled and honored to represent this group of kids," Belles said. "They've worked really hard. In particular, the seniors, who have had a wild ride in their three years on varsity."

This is all-everything Will Galvan's fourth year on varisty. He's experience the heartache of losing on the last play in the 4A semifinals, on the last play in the 4A final and in the Open. Now he wants to finish with a title.

"Regardless of what happens Friday night, these guys have left a legacy," Belles said.

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert atrichard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him on Twitter@azc_obert

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 5 takeaways from Arizona high school football championships media day