Call it a comeback: Centennial football eyes state title in return to prominence

Centennial football coach Richard Taylor watches over his team as it prepares for an anticipated matchup Friday against undefeated Liberty. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

PEORIA — Centennial High School football coach Richard Taylor closed out practice with six words.

“Kill the noise, it’s not important.”

After last season’s dismal 3-7 record, punctuated with a first-round exit in the playoffs, the Coyotes, once one of the most boisterous teams on the state’s high school football scene, are back to making some noise of their own.

Ranked No. 8 in Arizona with a 7-1 record, Centennial is on pace to make the 6A playoffs as a top seed in the 16-team field, bolstering the Coyotes’ hopes of a return to the championship. But first up is Friday night’s away game against undefeated rival Liberty, which enters the contest 8-0 and formidable on its own field.

“We have been talking about good to great,” Taylor said. “After a disappointing season last year, we had to get rid of some bad habits. And to the seniors’ and captains’ credit, I think they have done that.”

Taylor has built a legacy at Centennial behind seven state championship appearances in 31 years as coach. In 2018, the Coyotes earned their second straight 5A title, but last season humbled Taylor’s storied program.

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The team was knocked out in the first round of the 2021 playoffs, putting Centennial in an unfamiliar spot. This year, the Coyotes have rebounded by sticking to their mantra of maintaining focus, getting stronger in the weight room and not giving up penalties.

Kavaughn Clark, a strong force in the Coyotes offensive, is on track to have his best season yet at Centennial. As the team continues to pave the path to a rousing comeback, the senior running back is on a personal mission.

After the death of his mother last year, Clark, overcome by the loss, wasn’t at his best but still rushed for 623 yards and scored seven touchdowns. This season, as he plays every down with the goal of honoring his mom, Clark has run for over 1,000 yards, including 230 yards in the team’s win against Mountain Ridge last week. Two weeks earlier, Clark’s breakaway 18-yard dash with 20 seconds left in the game sealed the Coyotes’ win over Phoenix Sandra Day O’Connor.

“I think about her before every single game, always got something with me of her,” Clark said of his mother, Leona Clark-Diggs, who died of COVID-19 complications. “I always keep a teddy bear (of hers) or something with me so I always make sure that I go out there and play my hardest every single night.”

Clark has already smashed his career highs from his sophomore year when he rushed for 968 yards with 11 touchdowns.

“I’m really happy for him,” Taylor said about Clark’s season. “He went through a terrible tragedy. And I don’t think you ever get over that, regardless of what age you are. And now he’s having a really good year this year.”

Coyotes two-way player Noah Carter is a huge part of the Coyotes' defense this season and helps lead the team with 7.5 sacks. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

Coyotes two-way player Noah Carter is a huge part of the Coyotes’ defense this season and helps lead the team with 7.5 sacks. (Photo by Brooklyn Hall/ Cronkite News)

Right alongside Clark is Noah Carter, a two-way player who is a threat at receiver and a menace as a defensive end. Carter also came up big in the Coyotes’ last-minute victory against Sandra Day O’Connor with two sacks.

Carter and Clark lead the team as best friends, forming an unbreakable bond that has transferred to the field.

“I definitely love playing with my brother,” Carter said. “All my brothers. I love everybody on the team and I just play for them every week.”

The feeling is mutual for Clark, who has been working along with the team to remain disciplined on the field and in the weight room.

“The chemistry with my brothers that we’ve been building for months … it’s starting to pay off throughout the season right now,” Clark said.

A handful of practices remain in the regular season, and there are possibly six games to play if Centennial makes it through the playoffs. Friday’s much-hyped game against Liberty looms, followed by a home game against Pinnacle before the postseason begins. Taylor continues to preach focusing on going from “good to great,” reminding his players to give their all.

It’s the only noise the Coyotes want to hear.

Madison Thacker mad-uh-sun thack-er (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Madison Thacker expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Thacker has interned as a reporter with The Arizona Republic.

Brooklyn Hall BROOK-lyn hall (she/her)
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Brooklyn Hall expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Hall has interned with the Amarillo Sod Poodles and is currently interning with the Arizona Diamondbacks on their DBTV crew.