The 2023 Arizona high school football season already has been filled with plenty of surprises, including more than a few teams that didn't receive a lot of preseason hype but are showing they deserve attention. Here are The Arizona Republic's 10 biggest surprises in the first half of the season:
1. Higley's loss of star players hasn't hurt
Defending 5A champion Gilbert Higley became a team nobody was talking about this summer after quarterback Jamar Malone and outside linebacker Kamarion Peete left and ended up in Alabama, where they are now playing for Daphne. But Higly had some transfers come in, particularly heralded junior quarterback Luke Haugo. But they would have to wait until the first half of the season was played to take the field. Enter unknown sophomore QB Gunner Fagrell, who has the Knights off to a 3-1 start (they had a bye last week). If not for a double-overtime loss at Desert Edge, they'd be 4-0.
2. McClintock QB Jaxon Knutson off to torrid start
Where did this kid come from? McClintock junior Jaxon Knutson had to sit out all of his sophomore season due to the AIA's double-transfer rule. Then with the go sign, he took off from Day 1 this year. Knutson torched Maricopa for 478 yards and seven TDs in a 58-31 season-opening win. He has McClintock off to a 3-2 start, passing for 1,685 yards and 19 TDs, after the Chargers won only three games all of last season.
3. Pinon is 5-0 in 2A
This is not a state-title contending team. Not even close. But, hey, this is a major breakthrough to be 5-0 from a Navajo Nation school that hasn't had a winning season since 2012, when it went 8-3. This 2A team is led by 5-foot-8, 140-pound senior Silas Kaye, who has 662 yards and 11 TDs rushing.
4. Tempe's resurgence
After moving down to 3A and going 1-9 last year in coach Sean Freeman's first season leading the Buffaloes, Tempe (4-2) has won four in a row so far this season. Freeman said: "This Tempe team has awoken and they are making sure the next generation of Buffaloes know what Buffalo ball is all about." The turnaround comes after losing their best player, two-way athlete Elias Johnson, in a transfer move to Scottsdale Saguaro. Sophomore QB Saul Mendez (825 yards, 12 TDs, five interceptions passing) has been a revelation. "To barely having anyone in the stands last year to now having the parking lot and stands filled with a proud community watching their team shine again, that right there is impressive," Freeman said.
5. Casa Grande's 'other' team
There is another school in Casa Grande called Vista Grande, and its 5-0 start for the first ime has people talking. Coach Jon Roberts has brought this team a long way, sending the message that the city no longer is a one-school football town even though Casa Grande High won the 4A title a couple of years ago. "We believe in our players as coaches, but statewide, no one really knows who we are what we're buildiung down here in Casa Grande," Roberts said. "We are constantly overshadowed by Casa Grande Union, and rightfully so based on their 2021 state championship."
6. Brophy QB's development
Much of the preseason hype was on Brophy Prep's defense, its front line, and how the offensive line has grown. But senior quarterback Charlie McGinnis emerged as one of the most improved players in the state with the Broncos at 4-1 heading into their biggest game Thursday against defending Open state champion Basha. McGinnis has been efficient and is able to run. He's passed for 942 yards with 11 TDs and just two interceptions and a QB rating of 113.
7. Perry 5-0 first time since Brock Purdy was QB
Gilbert Perry, in Joseph Ortiz's second season as head coach, seems to have turned the corner. At the midway point, the Pumas are 5-0 for the first time since Brock Purdy, now with the San Francisco 49ers, was the quarterback in 2017. That Perry team reached the state final behind Purdy, who was the Arizona high school football Player of the Year. This season, junior QB Diesel Taylor has been good (1,059 yards, 22 TDs, one interception, 127 QB rating). But now come the heavyweights in the 6A Premier region, starting with Hamilton Friday. Perry didn't win a Premier game last year.
8. ALA Queen Creek's seamless transition
The most on-the-move football program since 2019 has been American Leadership Academy Queen Creek. Since going 14-0 and winning the 3A title that year, ALA QC has moved up to 4A, then 5A and now, in its first year at the top level in 6A, the Patriots are 4-1, thanks to QB Enoch Watson, who was cleared to play after moving in from Flagstaff Coconino last spring.
9. Eastmark hanging tough in 4A
Mesa Eastmark is 3-2 after moving up to 4A from 3A, where it won the title last year. But this was a year in transition with a new coach (Travis Dixon), new quarterback (junior Mason Jensen), and mostly new skill-position players, after coach Scooter Molander left to become head coach at Phoenix Desert Vista. The Firebirds played the 4A No. 1 Canyon del Oro tough in a season-opening 21-14 loss. They beat Mesquite by three touchdowns, got past Arizona College Prep and, if not for giving up a last-minute 80-yard scoring drive against Northwest Christian, it would be riding a four-game winning streak into Poston Butte this week.
10. Mohave at No. 1 in 3A
Bullhead City Mohave this week moved into the top spot in the 3A rankings by The Arizona Republic for the first time at 6-0. This is three seasons removed from going 0-7 in the 2020 COVID year. This is the only team to beat Paradise Honors (56-28), which has been on fire since then behind QB Gage Baker, who has throw 32 TD passes in his last four games.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona high school football: 10 biggest surprises in first half of season