Corona continues climb toward football playoffs

By Brian Gomez

For the first time since 1998, it looks as if the Corona del Sol High School football team might actually meet its lofty expectations.

It has been six long years since the Aztecs assembled a season worthy of anything more than criticism. But even the 1998 team, which finished the regular season 9-1, couldn’t advance past the second round of the Class 5A state playoffs.

The tide appears to be turning for No. 10 Corona, which has won four consecutive games after a sluggish 1-2 start. What’s more impressive is that Corona (5-2, 2-0 Central Region) has outscored its last four opponents 176-45, routing Phoenix Alhambra and Gilbert Mesquite and region foes Yuma and Mountain Pointe.

“It seems like we finally got it going,” said Corona coach Gary Venturo, whose team travels to Tucson Flowing Wells at 7 p.m. Oct. 22. “It’s a combination of things. The kids are performing up to their ability and they believe now, and the execution has gotten better.”

Senior halfback Blaise Johnson, who started the past two games at quarterback in place of ill senior Jake Nero, has spearheaded the turnaround, although credit must be given to Corona’s other playmakers.

Senior tight end Michael Yarbrough and senior running back Daniel McClendon each had a pair of touchdowns last week in a 45-10 win over rival Mountain Pointe. Corona’s special teams also came through, blocking a field goal and recovering an onside kick.

“Offense, defense and special teams, all three areas have done very well,” Venturo said. “The kids have gotten a lot of confidence the last three weeks.”

Healthy after a brief bout of mononucleosis, Nero practiced for the first time last week and might play against Flowing Wells. However, Johnson is expected to remain the starting quarterback, considering his effectiveness in Nero’s absence.

“When asked to run up the middle or do certain things, he does them,” Venturo said of Johnson. “He’s a little quicker and he can do a little more.”

The Aztecs haven’t captured a region title since 1991, when they totaled a school-record-tying 12 wins. Their only other region title came in 1981 under Larry Hughes, who started the program and coached for 10 years before Venturo took the helm.

With three games left, Corona has a chance to post eight wins for just the ninth time in school history and for the first time since 1998.

The Aztecs, who are 15th in the latest power points ratings, likely need two more wins to clinch a spot in the 16-team postseason field. They could slip in with just one win, but only if it comes in the season finale against Desert Vista.

Corona’s lone losses are against No. 1 Chandler Hamilton and No. 12 Phoenix Maryvale, who are a combined 12-2. Hamilton is first in the power points and Maryvale is tied for 11th, helping Corona’s cause.

The Aztecs must either win the Central Region or finish ranked higher than 15th in the power points to avoid getting bumped by teams from the Metro Region and the Northwest Region.

Region champs are guaranteed postseason berths, meaning a Metro team, such as Phoenix North, Phoenix Cesar Chavez or Phoenix Camelback, could steal a postseason spot. Ditto for Northwest teams Glendale Mountain Ridge, Glendale Deer Valley or Phoenix Goldwater.

Venturo claims that he doesn’t pay attention to anything other than what’s on the field.

“If you take care of business, you’ll be there,” Venturo said of his team’s postseason chances. “The more you win, the better seed you get. We know that each game is important, but we can only go one at a time. We can’t look past anybody.”