Sports Update...with Brian Gomez
Upset puts Aztecs in quarterfinals

By Brian Gomez

And you thought the Corona del Sol High School football team wouldn’t play another home game this season.

Boosted by an improbable win over sixth-seeded Peoria in the opening round of the Class 5A state playoffs, 11th-seeded Corona will meet 14th-seeded Gilbert Highland in Friday’s quarterfinals at Hascall Henshaw Stadium.

A victory Friday would put Corona (9-2) in the semifinals to face the winner between seventh-seeded Tucson Salpointe and second-seeded Chandler Hamilton. Corona hasn’t played Salpointe this season. It has lost three straight against Hamilton, the defending state champion.

Corona’s nine wins are the most since 1998, also the last time it triumphed in a playoff game. Its eight-game winning streak is the longest since the 1988 and ’89 seasons.

Corona coach Gary Venturo couldn’t be happier about playing at home.

“It’s a great advantage, because we’re playing in front of a home crowd,” said Venturo, whose team went 3-2 at Hascall Henshaw Stadium during the regular season. “We haven’t done that in the second round in 20 or 25 years.”

The key to Corona’s success has been senior quarterback Blaise Johnson, who has thrown for 712 yards and 10 touchdowns, rushed for 820 yards and 11 scores and caught six passes for 136 yards and a TD. He also has 393 yards on 15 kickoff returns.

Senior running back Daniel McClendon and senior tight end Michael Yarbrough have provided support for Johnson. McClendon has totaled 941 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, and Yarbrough has caught 10 passes for 168 yards and four TDs.

Johnson and McClendon both played critical roles in Corona’s 21-17 win over Peoria.

After a pair of 27-yard field goals by junior kicker Kevin Hager, Johnson scored on a 5-yard touchdown run, and then executed the ensuing two-point conversion to cut Peoria’s lead to 17-14.

In the fourth quarter, Corona forced Peoria senior quarterback Carlos Miranda into fumbling. Johnson then sprinted 65 yards on a quarterback draw, setting up McClendon’s 1-yard touchdown run, which gave Corona the lead for good.

“We knew that Peoria had a lot of great athletes,” Venturo said. “We fell behind, but I just knew the kids would make plays and that things would be OK.”

Corona must stop the run to get past Highland, the only team that has beaten Hamilton this season.

Highland has three capable running backs in senior Wesley Orth and juniors John Hershberger and Ronald Young, who have combined for 1,863 yards rushing and 19 rushing touchdowns. Orth leads the bunch with 816 yards rushing. Hershberger has rushed for 545 yards and eight TDs.

Junior quarterback Ryan Fair has thrown for 989 yards and 11 touchdowns but has been intercepted seven times. His favorite target is senior tight end Shaun Fitzpatrick, whose 519 receiving yards and seven touchdowns rank second in the Fiesta Region behind Hamilton senior wide receiver Mekell Wesley.

“We’ve got to shut down the run,” Venturo said. “They’ll throw the ball and they’ll score that way, too. But we’ve got to shut the run down.”

Venturo doesn’t anticipate a letdown after last week’s emotion-filled comeback.

“It’s like we’ve done all year,” Venturo said.

“We’ve always taken it one game at a time.”