For a football program that has increased its win total each of the past two seasons, it makes sense that Coconino wants to face one of the best teams in the 4A Conference to start out the year. The Coconino Panthers will open the 2020 football season against Cactus, a team that has had the Panthers' number the past two meetings.
Cactus has beaten Coconino each of the past two seasons, 53-14 in 2019 and 32-21 in 2018, but the losses don't worry Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley.
"We are gonna be going down there and battling in the heat," Lapsley said of the early-season games in the Valley. "Cactus, we've had them on the schedule the last couple years and last year I don't think the score dictated how close that game really was -- particularly in the first half. That coach gave me a jingle and asked if we want to go at it again, and I said 'Absolutely, yes.' I know our players wanted it as well, so we are really glad we have them at the front end of the schedule."
Last year, Coconino trailed 20-14 at the halftime break before Cactus scored 33 unanswered points in the second half to blow open the lead at Coconino's Cromer Stadium.
The seconded-seeded Cactus Cobras were just one point away from the 4A state title game, losing to eventual champion Mesquite 28-27 in a semifinals thriller.
Coconino, the defending Grand Canyon Region champion, is coming off its second straight season of increased win totals -- going from 7-3 to 9-1 last season in Lapsley's first year at the helm as he hopes to continue to rebuild a program that has its sights set on title contention.
The two square off Aug. 28 in the Valley in Coconino's opener, the first of four straight games outside the region slate for the Panthers to open the year against teams that went .500 or better and three teams that saw postseason play in 2019 according to its tentative schedule -- as it is currently not known if there will be a football season due to ongoing concerns over the coronavirus.
The week after Coconino faces Cactus on the road, the Panthers will visit 5A squad Cactus Shadows -- another tough challenge Lapsley welcomes.
The Panthers will finally host a game in Cromer on Sept. 11 against Marcos de Niza -- which is also on the Flagstaff Eagles' schedule -- as the first of two straight at home. The second is against a 3A Snowflake team that went 8-2 in 2019 and made it to the 3A tourney semis last season, just two points off a trip to the finals in a 16-14 loss to top-seeded Benjamin Franklin, which was reclassified to the 4A.
"(The schedule) is certainly tougher," Lapsley said, as the 2020 slate doesn't have a struggling program such as Cortez. "In my opinion we only had one way to go. So it definitely is tougher, which was something we wanted knowing our theme is to be the best you go through the best. ... On the front half it's going to be super competitive."
The rest of the season for Coconino is all region play.
The Panthers open their hunt to defend the Grand Canyon Region crown against Lee Williams in Kingman, then head to Prescott to face the Badgers.
Coconino will then host Mohave and Bradshaw Mountain at Cromer -- a game that could easily be for the region crown.
The Panthers close the regular season against Mingus Union and the traditional crosstown rivalry game against Flagstaff. It is Coconino's turn to be the home team in the crosstown game, but it is unclear if Cromer will play host to the game.
Much like Flagstaff, Coconino has had to find some creative ways to keep its players busy during the missed spring practice and workout time. Lapsley said he has sent athletes home workouts to do and has heard from many about ways they have kept as fit as they can be without being able to be on the field.
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