Playoff run sets stage for next season

By Brian Gomez

Corona del Sol High School football coach Gary Venturo could second-guess himself until he’s orange in the face.

It won’t do much good. He might as well look toward next season. After all, there’s no shame in that, considering what his team accomplished this year.

The Aztecs (9-3) strung together eight consecutive wins, matching their longest streak since the 1988-89 seasons. They captured their first Central Region title since 1991. And they advanced to the Class 5A quarterfinals, beating Peoria 21-17 before suffering a 21-17 loss against Gilbert Highland.

Venturo loses 29 seniors, including quarterback Blaise Johnson, running back Daniel McClendon and tight end Michael Yarbrough. Also gone are linebackers Kirk Cox and Jake Taylor, defensive back Jeff Sinay, kicker Tony Vidaure and punter Stephen Harper.

The onus for leadership next season will fall on junior wide receiver Matt Mosley and sophomore wide receiver Blaine Irby, who already is being recruited by four-year schools. Juniors Casey Shreiner, Matt Saba and Aaron Kuhl also will figure into the mix at wide receiver.

Candidates to replace McClendon at running back include sophomore Justin Salum and juniors Jeff Zunino, Matt Finstad and Andy Stitt. Junior Kevin Hager is expected to handle the kicking duties.

“We’ll be competitive again,” said Venturo, whose team marked its fourth consecutive winning season. “We got to play most kids in the third and fourth quarter, so we got a lot of kids playing time. In high school, that’s what it’s about.”

For Venturo, it’s not easy trying to shake the painful memories of a season-ending loss against Highland.

Buoyed by McClendon’s 95-yard fumble return for a touchdown, Corona jumped ahead 17-7 midway through the third quarter, only to watch its lead vanish in the closing minutes.

Junior quarterback Ryan Fair found senior running back Derek Denning for a 20-yard touchdown pass, and then junior running back John Hershberger scored on a 1-yard TD run with 40 seconds left, putting Highland on top for good.

“They weren’t any more talented than we were,” Venturo said. “We knew it was going to be a close game and that one team was going to come out on top. We probably could have advanced, but it just didn’t happen.”

Johnson finished the season with 712 yards passing and 10 touchdown passes. He was intercepted three times. He also rushed for 820 yards and 11 touchdowns and caught six passes for 136 yards and a touchdown.

McClendon rushed for 941 yards and 12 touchdowns. His 7.47-yard average was the third-highest in school history behind Donzell Pitt and Scott Shill, both of whom averaged 7.9 yards per carry.

Yarbrough totaled a team-high 168 receiving yards and four touchdown catches. Johnson, Shreiner, Irby and senior wide receivers Dave Fero and Alex Richardson each caught for more than 100 yards.

On field goals, Hager finished 3 for 6; Harper was 2 for 2; and Vidaure was 1 for 4. Hager was 36 for 38 on extra points. Harper averaged 37 yards per punt.

Corona’s 410 points tied the single-season school record set by the 1981 team. Its 35.6 points per game was the highest average in school history and its 54 touchdowns were the second most, three fewer than the mark set by the 1980 team, which captured the 4A state championship.