CASA GRANDE – As season openers go, Friday night’s game against Phoenix Sunnyslope has the potential of being a rugged test for the Casa Grande Union football team.

The Cougars, who have designs on winning the state title after reaching the Class 4A semifinals last year, should get much more than a token effort from their opponent when they face the Vikings at Al Van Hazel Stadium. Sunnyslope was awarded the No. 2 seed for the 5A playoffs in 2020, and finished 5-2 after falling to No. 7 Scottsdale Notre Dame in the quarterfinals.

“I prefer playing tougher teams right out of the gate because then you really know what you need to work on (going into the second game),” CG Union coach Jake Barro said. “Sunnyslope is very disciplined and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. We’re going to have to work for everything we get.”

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CG Union went 8-2 last year, including 2-1 in the playoffs. Although the top-seeded Cougars’ season ended with a 35-13 loss to fourth-seeded Glendale Cactus, reaching the semifinals was an unprecedented accomplishment for the program.

With nine of 11 starters back on offense and eight of 11 returning on defense, CG Union has the personnel to make another championship run. The Cougars averaged 38.4 points and 414 total yards (259 rushing, 155 passing) in 2020 while allowing 17.1 points.

Sunnyslope averaged 21.0 points and 249 total yards (103 rushing, 146 passing) while allowing 16.4 points.

Both teams will have last year’s starting quarterback operating their respective offenses, and each returns its top running back.

CG Union quarterback Angel Flores enters his fourth season with 5,286 passing yards (second in program history behind Brock Hall, who threw for 7,462 from 2013-16) and 36 touchdown passes. Hall threw for 73 career TDs. Jason Lenderman had 36 touchdown tosses from 1991-94.

Flores also is an elusive runner. He rushed for a team-best 934 yards last year, averaging 9.5 per carry, and scored 16 TDs on the ground to go with 11 touchdown passes.

Despite missing three games due to injury, running back RJ Keeton averaged 10.6 yards per carry and scored 18 TDs on just 80 attempts.

Another huge plus for the Cougars is Demetrius Garrett, who averaged 22.3 yards on 30 catches — seven of which went for touchdowns.

Sunnyslope quarterback Tanner Daoust completed 50 percent of his passes in 2020, going 63 of 126 for 1,015 yards with eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Xander Georgoulis rushed for 576 yards and six TDs, averaging 4.2 yards per attempt.

When quality teams meet, two factors always loom large in determining the outcome.

“Turnovers and mental mistakes, especially in the opener,” Barro said. “You can’t afford to make too many.”

The Cougars scrimmaged against Gilbert Campo Verde last week, with the highlights being a long pass completion from Flores to Zion Gomez that led to a short TD run by Keeton and Kevin White’s interception.

“For the most part, we accomplished what we needed to do in the scrimmage,” Barro said. “I saw some stuff we needed to work on. The good thing is, everything was relatively easy to fix.”

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