Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Every team will be in contention for a playoff spot — and second place finish — in the Sunset Southwest League.
Take Bishop Gorman, the three-time defending national champions, out of the equation and the Southwest is arguably the state's most balanced division. Gorman, which is ranked No. 4 in the preseason by USA Today, beat each league opponent by the mercy rule of the running clock last season and returns a roster of top college recruits again this fall.
Not only are the Gaels the runaway favorite to win the Southwest, they are the unquestioned favorites to win a ninth straight state championship. Gorman hasn't lost a league game since 2006 when it fell to Spring Valley and Sierra Vista.
That doesn't mean, though, that opposing Southwest teams aren't playing to win.
"Every time you get to play Gorman you know there will be a lot of recruiters there and the build-up will be big," Durango quarterback Kaden Renshaw said. "We have to focus like it is any other game."
Behind Gorman there's plenty of parity — just like last year when one play at the end of multiple games changed the playoff seeding.
Spring Valley, for instance, beat Durango in overtime in the last week to sneak into the postseason. A week earlier, Spring Valley blocked a field goal on the game's last play to beat Desert Oasis.
Durango stopped a 2-point conversion against Bonanza in late-September on the game's last play as part of a 6-0 start to the season. But Durango dropped its final three games to miss the playoffs, and Bonanza got hot late to salvage its season and surprisingly make the postseason.
"There are a lot of teams that are fairly similar, so it will be fairly competitive," Sierra Vista coach John Foss said.
Even Clark, which didn't win a league game last season, believes it can compete for the playoffs.
"The thing I preach to the kids is to compete," said Ricky Pickens, Clark's first-year coach. "If you compete, the score will work itself out."
Sierra Vista, ranked No. 10 in the preseason, returns many key players on its offensive line and should have a distinct size advantage. Last season, it took second and put up a fight in a Sunset Regional quarterfinal playoff game against Legacy.
While Sierra Vista's skilled-position players aren't as proven, don't be surprised if the Mountain Lions again find ways to win games. It won eight straight games to open last season, including holding three league opponents to less than 10 points.
"We feel like we have built up a pretty strong program," Foss said. "We'd like to push forward even more this year than last year."
But just because a team starts the season with wins, doesn't mean they are assured a place in the postseason. Durango went from being undefeated in the middle of October in 2016 to missing the playoffs. That gives its young nucleus — many juniors who played last season — motivation moving forward
"At the end (of the season), we just fell apart," said T.K Fotu, Durango's junior linebacker. I don't know what happened. We didn't have the same intensity from the beginning of the season."
Spring Valley may be the biggest surprise. Senior quarterback Sylo Stanton didn't play last season after transferring from Canyon Springs, and is arguably the best non-Gorman playing in the Southwest.
"We have the players we feel that we can win with every week and we prepare those guys to play that way," Spring Valley coach Marcus Teal said. "If you prepare to win every week, you go into each game with the mentality that you have a chance. That's all we are asking for, a chance."
Last year's finish : Bishop Gorman, Sierra Vista, Bonanza, Spring Valley, Durango, Desert Oasis, Clark
Projected 2017 finish : Bishop Gorman, Sierra Vista, Durango, Spring Valley, Bonanza, Desert Oasis, Clark
Bishop Gorman: Quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson (UCLA), tight end Brevin Jordan (Miami) and linebacker Palaie Gaoteote (USC commit and three-year starter)
Bonanza: Defensive back Joey Fox (Nevada's No. 29 prospect for 2018 by Rivals.com), junior quarterback Kyle Allison and wide receiver Joshua Wilson.
Clark: Running back Aquantay Morris (four-year varsity player), wide receiver Daimanuel Mayfield and Justin Aguilar, a quarterback and safety
Desert Oasis: Quarterback Mitch Moniz (6-foot-2, 215-pounds), lineman Aydan Smith (6-foot-2, 310-pounds) and running back Anthony Garcia
Durango: Quarterback Kaden Renshaw (started last year as sophomore), junior linebacker T.K. Fotu (60 tackles in 2016) and wide receiver Kevin O'Neil (3 TDs in 2016).
Sierra Vista: Linemen Tim Asuncion (three-year starter; preseason all-city) and Brendan Bentley (Air Force verbal commit) and running back Jaxson Zibert.
Spring Valley: Quarterback Sylo Stanton (missed 2016 after transferring), linebacker Clark Genneken (51 tackles in 2017) and wide receiver Kash Jenkins (264 receiving yards; 2 TDs in 2017)
Offensive MVP: Gorman's Thompson-Robinson
Defensive MVP: Gorman's Gaoteote
Rising Star (best freshman or sophomore): Christian Vaughn, Desert Oasis, running back
Coach of the Year: Durango's Scott Murdock
Game of the Year: Spring Valley 23, Bonanza 21 in "Banner Game"
Newcomer of the Year: Spring Valley's Staton