SUPERIOR — While the rest of the Arizona Interscholastic Association conferences are wrapping up the regular season, Class 1A held its quarterfinal matchups Friday.
Superior (6-0) took care of business in its 76-20 win over Anthem Prep (5-2), but coach Ryan Palmer told PinalCentral it wasn’t an easy victory.
“We won 76-20 so when you look at that you’d say we must have played pretty good, but I think not having a game last week we had a little bit of rust maybe if you want to say that just by having that off week,” he said. “But once we kind of settled in we started executing better, and I think we played really tough.”
The Panthers regular season finale against San Manuel was canceled last week due to COVID-19.
Palmer added this season has been difficult in dealing with COVID and all the uncertainty that comes with it. Actually playing a game is no longer a sure thing.
“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “Everybody has to deal with the same adversity, so it’s one of those things where it’s part of the season and your preparation has to include COVID. Just tonight we had kids say, ‘Well I’m not sure, I don’t feel the best.’ So I said just stay home, that’s all there is to it. It’s not worth it. We’ve had kids missing games because they had a sore throat and you just don’t even mess around with that at all.”
The Panthers have not had any issues with positive cases.
Looking ahead at next week’s game, it will be a rematch of last year’s championship game against Williams (5-1).
Williams defeated Superior 35-20 in that game, and it also won when the two teams met in the state title game in 2017, 57-14.
“We have a really tough task,” Palmer said. “I don’t think they feel pressure, maybe a little bit more motivation. My expectation is we should be very, very motivated based on what happened to us last year, and we should have something to prove, but at that same time it’s going to be our first big test and Williams is a very good team and they’re very well coached.”
Palmer believes this will be his team’s first big challenge after having breezed through the regular season outscoring opponents 287-31 in five games.
Anthem Prep’s 20 points on Friday were the most points allowed by the Panthers defense this season.
“We played a season this year where our starters pretty much had a running clock sometimes before the first quarter,” Palmer said. “So we haven’t really been battle tested this year. We haven’t really played anyone that’s popped us in our mouth, and you never really know what type of team you have until you get hit in the mouth. So what it’s going to come down to is, I think with our experience and with our senior leadership, I think our kids know how to win and they’re a tough group of kids.”
Adam Navarrette is the do-everything-guy for the Panthers, and Palmer said he’s had an impact on the program ever since he was a freshman.
Palmer added when the team is struggling a bit on offense, they get the ball to Navarrette and it usually ends in a touchdown, whether that’s on offense as a running back or wide receiver and also on special teams.
“He’s such a great athlete, and it all starts with him,” Palmer said of Navarette.
Due to the blowout nature of their games, Panthers junior quarterback Matthew Cruz has just 57 pass attempts in his five starts. But he has 17 TDs and just one interception.
Other seniors on the team include Matthew Diaz-Gonzalez, who has provided great leadership on both sides of the ball, as well as Joshua Marquez, Marc Mendoza, Nathan Duarte and Matthew Perez.
Palmer added that Duarte has been the biggest surprise at the defensive back position.
“He’s really stepped up for us,” Palmer said. “He had some injuries and things last year, but this year he’s really come out and now he’s one of our leading receivers on offense. You got a great group of kids who want to win and know how to win. They’ve only been in the state championship game, they haven’t played a season that hasn’t ended in that final game. They know how to get there and they’re the ones leading.”
Superior is hoping to make its fourth consecutive championship appearance and is on the hunt for its second championship trophy in three years.
The Panthers beat Hayden 70-20 in 2018.
“We’ve had a lot of success and it’s something that we’ve kind of been building, just building off of that tradition and success,” Palmer said. “Our goal is to try to get back.”