Each looking to snap playoff droughts, the Coconino Panthers and Flagstaff Eagles will meet for the only time this season early on rather than at the end of the year.
While the Panthers opened the season at Tempe on Tuesday, coming away with an 8-0 loss, the Eagles will open their regular season against their rival Thursday at home for a 3 p.m. match.
Finishing 7-4 overall and 4-1 in the Grand Canyon Region a year ago, Flagstaff found itself just outside the 16-team 4A Conference bracket last season. A year prior, the Eagles finished 7-5 and 4-5 in section play during the AIA’s temporary realignment that dropped Flagstaff into a group with multiple Valley schools.
While Flagstaff’s last playoff appearance came in 2015 with a 9-4 record, Coconino’s most recent playoff berth was a year prior in 2014. Finishing 9-1-1 with a 1-1 tie and a 2-0 victory against the Eagles, the season stands as the Panthers’ most recent finish above .500.
Each team has a better chance at a playoff appearance in 2018, as the 4A added a play-in game to its playoff qualification. With the conference’s top eight schools qualified for the 16-team bracket, the No. 9- to No. 24-ranked schools will face off in a play-in round, with the winners reseeded. The top eight teams will host the play-in round, with region champions guaranteed to be at least a No. 16 seed and host in that round.
With six seniors, including key returners in Miguel Adame, Dellany Carlsen, Ricardo Hernandez, Sean Lightner and Vidal Zaldivar, and another five juniors, including Marco Avitia and Mark Cardenas, Flagstaff enters the season with half of its roster underclassmen playing under head coach Mike Jenkins.
Meanwhile, Coconino brings back seniors Jesus Soria, Leonardo Abrego, Hipolito Molina and Diego Ramirez, as well as juniors Jordan Lugo and Jair Limones and sophomore Tyler Gregg for head coach Kalani Kuamoo.
With inclement weather constantly a factor for Coconino and Flagstaff, with snowstorms constantly postponing games and leading to hectic finishes of the schedule at the end of the season, the AIA’s play-in schedule leaves less leeway for rescheduled games.
Coconino is set to play its season finale at Youngker on Jan. 23 and Flagstaff is scheduled to play at Mingus Union the same day, and the play-in games are set for Jan. 25.