Barring any appeals, let’s assume the new football region placements announced by the Arizona Interscholastic Association on Tuesday are staying the same.
So how did the AIA do in this process? I’ll give a grade for each region that includes a Pinal County team and an explanation for that grade.
Region: 5A East
Grade: A minus
While this region is going to be incredibly difficult, it’s a good fit for Maricopa. The Rams are used to playing a brutal schedule. Maricopa had the fifth-toughest strength of schedule in 5A last year. This is an East Valley region, and it includes holdovers Gilbert Higley and Gilbert High. The other schools are all in Scottsdale — Horizon, Notre Dame Prep and the powerhouse that is Saguaro.
All of those teams made the playoffs in 2019, while Horizon and Saguaro made the Open Division bracket as two of the top eight teams in the entire state.
Region: 4A Kino
Team: Casa Grande Union
Grade: A minus
This region makes sense. I think Casa Grande is better served playing teams in the East Valley, but this region is largely similar to the previous one the Cougars were in the last two years. Oro Valley Canyon del Oro and Tucson Sahuaro are holdovers from the previous region, and CG Union played newcomers Sahuarita Walden Grove and Tucson Pueblo last year in freedom games.
Casa Grande also beat Walden Grove in the first round of the 4A state playoffs. No one really knows what to expect from Vail Mica Mountain, a new school that will open its doors in July.
Region: 4A Copper Sky
Team: Vista Grande
Consider this a life raft thrown to the Vista Grande football program. The Spartans, who posted a 2-18 record the last two seasons playing in a very tough 4A Kino, get a big break. Their opponents will be Phoenix Washington, Phoenix Sierra Linda, Phoenix Carl Hayden and Yuma.
Washington and Yuma finished No. 39 and No. 41 in the 4A power rankings last season, while Carl Hayden and Sierra Linda were two of the bottom four teams in the 5A rankings. Outside of the headache of going to Yuma once in the next two years, this is perfect for Vista Grande.
Region: 4A Black Canyon
Teams: Poston Butte, Combs, Apache Junction
This region just got a whole lot more competitive. Some really bad teams (Phoenix Washington, Phoenix Cortez and El Mirage Dysart) are replaced by Poston Butte, Phoenix Arcadia and Tempe High. Those three teams all finished in the top 20 of the 4A power rankings last season.
As a bonus, it appropriately groups Poston Butte with holdovers Combs and Apache Junction along the Ironwood/Gantzel Road corridor in the San Tan Valley area. And it creates natural rivalry games between Poston Butte vs. Combs and Poston Butte vs. AJ. Combs vs. AJ is already a great rivalry.
Region: 3A Central
Teams: Florence, Coolidge, San Tan Foothills, ALA-Ironwood
Grade: B plus
At this point, you probably think I’m going easy on the AIA with these grades. But I will give credit where credit is due. These four teams were already together in the previous 3A Central. But the region now has competitive balance, as juggernauts American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek and Queen Creek Benjamin Franklin were moved up to 4A.
The only downgrade here is Mesa Eastmark, a team that has yet to play a varsity football game at the AIA level. Its freshman team went 6-2 last season.
Region: 2A Rillito
Teams: Santa Cruz Valley, Sequoia Pathway
Grade: C minus
This is the one region that appears like a throwaway. And that’s not good for Santa Cruz, one of the best small-school football programs in the state. Wellton Antelope was No. 12 in the 2A power rankings in 2019, so that’s one good team. But in case you didn’t know, Wellton is near Yuma, which makes it a brutal road trip.
The arrival of Sequoia Pathway, a Maricopa school that was in the Canyon Athletic Association, is good for Pinal County. However, the Pumas could struggle to adjust to AIA competition early. The other schools are Tucson Santa Rita, Tucson Catalina and Tucson Tanque Verde. Santa Rita finished No. 29 in the 2A power points last season, while Catalina and Tanque Verde were two of the bottom three teams in 3A.