Pedersen on Sports

Where the Friday night football lights will shine brightest this fall

If you're like me, most of your Saturdays during the latter half of 2013 have already been booked up, either with attending UA football games or watching them on TV somewhere.

Sundays are pretty much taken, too, what with all of those NFL games that must be tracked in order to keep up on one's fantasy teams or sports bets or, possibly, even just because you're a fan of the game. There's gotta be some actual Jacksonville Jaguars fans out there, somewhere.

But what about Friday nights?

What? You're saying that's reserved for "date night," or "family time?" OK then, here's the perfect choice to satisfy both criteria: high school football.

You know what that is, right? It's the games involving collections of teenagers of varied abilities who, for the most part, are just playing for fun and school pride, not in preparation for appearing at some ridiculous recruiting event called The Opening or choosing between a bunch of snap-back hats during a televised (!) press conference to announce where they'll attend college.

It's why our normally dark and star-friendly skies have small blips of bright fluorescence interrupting backyard satellite viewings on Fridays between late August and early November, and why places like Waffle House do a brisk business several hours before the bars close those nights.

Prep football is a staple of nearly every small town in America. And let's face it, Tucson is the biggest small town in the world. No matter where you go, no matter what you're doing, you end up running into someone you know, or someone who knows someone you know. It happens to me nearly every time I visit one of this region's roughly 25 high schools, and even though I'm not originally from here it's like a mini-homecoming.

The football is pretty fun to watch, too.

Why bring this up now, a good six weeks before the season? I'm a sucker for data, and when the Arizona Interscholastic Association "publicly released" the 2013-14 schedules for all sports last week, I'm not ashamed to say I spent the better part of an afternoon poring over dozens of local schedules.

And I've now pretty much planned out my Friday night excursions for the fall, in case my wife and kids want to know ahead of time where I'll be.

While my destinations are predicated more on which media outlet I can con into letting me freelance for it, the choice of where to go for everyone else is a little more fluid and uncertain. To that end, I've provided a cheat sheet on the best options for each week between Aug. 23 and Nov. 1.

Week 1 (Aug. 23-24)

The season begins with three local teams playing a week before everyone else, but only one contest is at home, that being defending Division II champ Ironwood Ridge against Peoria Liberty. Ironically, the best local team (Salpointe Catholic) is also playing that night against a school called Liberty, albeit one from Las Vegas, and it's on the road in Sin City.

Week 2 (Aug. 29-30)

A full slate includes the first-ever matchup between Sahuarita and cross-suburb rival Walden Grove, which is entering its first season with actual seniors on the roster. This game is being played on a Thursday and is likely to draw a sizable crowd, probably bigger than the Friday games because it won't conflict with the UA football opener against Northern Arizona.

Friday is jam-packed with great matchups, including Marana hosting rival Mountain View way out in the boonies, Salpointe hosting Sabino in a battle of the city's most prospect-laden rosters and Ironwood Ridge traveling to Vail to play Cienega and its Oregon-like array of uniform and helmet combinations.

Also on the schedule is a game that will probably come with a tractor-trailer's worth of emotion, as Empire hosts Palo Verde in the first game since Ravens quarterback Grayson Weeks was killed in a wreck on Interstate 10 in December. Weeks, who would have been a junior this year, was also the nephew of Empire coach Jorge Mendivil.

Week 3 (Sept. 6)

If you want storied traditions and a good ol' fashioned hate-filled rivalry, head to Sahuaro at Sabino. This used to be the traditional kickoff classic for local prep football, and even if the games have mostly gone to Sabino of late, it's always a great experience.

Or, if you're looking for a place to search for a redemptive, down-on-their-luck story, head west to see Cholla visit Amphitheater. Neither program has been relevant for some time (combined they were 1-19 last year) so the winner of this game will get a nice shot of confidence.

Week 4 (Sept. 12-13)

The northwest side rivalry between Ironwood Ridge and Canyon del Oro is renewed at CDO, while in Vail, Cienega plays host to a Catalina Foothills team that, under the guidance of noted resurrectionist coach Jeff Scurran, will probably already be 2-0 after going 0-10 in 2012. Either contest should be fun to watch. Take note: most games, including the two listed above, are being held on Thursday because Sept. 13 is Yom Kippur.

Week 5 (Sept. 20)

Todd Mayfield spent most of his coaching career trying to live up to what his dad, Ollie, did at Tucson High. That ended after Mayfield led Palo Verde to a state title. Now, after stepping away for a few years to care for his now-deceased father, Todd is back at the helm at Palo Verde, and this week he gets a chance to beat an Amphi team he could never top when he coached at either PV or THS.

Week 6 (Sept. 27)

Games pitting teams from the same section take over the following week, but not before a doozy of a nonsection matchup: Tempe Marcos de Niza visits Salpointe in a game that will be filthy with fans, college scouts and the hundreds of hangers-on who crowd the Salpointe sidelines during big home games.

Week 7 (Oct. 4)

Among its many obtuse moves meant to put a Band-Aid on a ruptured artery, the Tucson Unified School District has floated the idea of combining Palo Verde and Santa Rita high schools. They play this week at Santa Rita; maybe the winner should get to pick the PVSRHS school colors and mascot.

Week 8 (Oct. 11)

Small-school football can be awfully enjoyable, especially if you're not too concerned with talent and ability. These are schools that make do with what's available, not via tryouts. This week sees two different types of tiny titans: San Manuel, and its population of kids whose parents are still hoping the mining industry will rebound, against host Pusch Ridge Christian Academy, a low-enrollment private school that fell just short of the playoffs last year.

Week 9 (Oct. 18)

Who's the best running back in the state? doesn't list any among its top 20 college prospects in Arizona, but my money is on Dominique Drake of Sierra Vista Buena. The 5-foot-9 sparkplug broke the school record for touchdowns last season, and this week's game at Sahuaro (along with Sept. 20 at Ironwood Ridge) are the only chances to see the senior in Tucson this fall.

If that doesn't wet your whistle, you can also check out the southside scrap between district rivals Desert View and Sunnyside. Don't know how much of a rivalry you'd call it because DV is 1-11 against the Blue Devils since the school opened in the mid-1980s.

Week 10 (Oct. 25)

Salpointe visits Ironwood Ridge in a game that will have plenty of playoff implications, but unless you're a 12th-level math whiz there's no point in getting into the "proprietary" power points model that the AIA has hired to use.

If calculations aren't your thing, there's also the westside rivalry between Cholla and Pueblo, which I can almost guarantee will have no playoff implications attached to it.

Week 11 (Nov. 1)

The final week is all about either qualifying for, or getting prepared for, the upcoming playoffs. Slowly growing northeast side school Tanque Verde is hoping this will be the year it's finally involved in that discussion. It hosts Bisbee with, maybe, just maybe, a chance to go to the postseason on the line.

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