Originally Published: September 27, 2012 11:44 p.m.
Flying low and under the radar, the Bagdad High football team has quietly been making a name for itself on the Arizona Interscholastic Association's Division VI eight-man circuit.
This season, the Sultans - who hail from the tiny mining community of Bagdad located some 65 miles west of Prescott - are pursuing the program's seventh straight state playoff berth.
However, it certainly won't be a cakewalk since BHS has arguably one of the toughest late-season schedules in its division in 2012.
Friday night at 7 on Homecoming, D-VI No. 9-ranked Bagdad (4-1 overall record) hosts No. 10 Salome (4-1) in the second of its final four regular-season games against Top 10-rated intra-division opponents.
Under first-year coach Dalton Mills, the Sultans opened the campaign on a four-game winning streak before sustaining their first loss last week at previous No. 1-ranked and current No. 4 Glendale Joy Christian, 62-30.
Despite his squad being the underdog, Mills - a 1991 graduate of Bagdad High who played safety and backup quarterback for the Sultans - said he hoped to upset a speedier Joy Christian club.
"We had three or four consecutive turnovers in the second quarter, and we hadn't put the ball on the ground like that all year," said Mills, a Bagdad native who coached at D-II Glendale Deer Valley High for several years prior to returning to his hometown five years ago.
"We looked at it as a good measuring stick. We feel like if we would've held onto the ball, we might've had a chance."
Versus Salome, Bagdad knows its defense must contain the Frogs' strong rushing attack in order to win.
Unfortunately, after Salome, the road does not get any easier for Bagdad. The Sultans will battle three-time defending state champion and presently eighth-ranked Joseph City (3-1) next Friday at the neutral site of Ash Fork H.S. and finish the regular season at No. 1 Phoenix Valley Lutheran (5-0) Oct. 12.
Despite the challenges Bagdad faces, Mills remains confident in his players' ability.
"We're hoping to win out here, and, at minimal, hopefully (make) a (state) semifinal appearance," Mills said. "We feel like we can play with anybody. We just have to put it together."
Sultans senior quarterback Kendall Jeans concurred.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't win out," he said. "We've got the talent to do it, and we've got the drive to win, definitely, so I think it's all there."
Added Bagdad wideout Kody Low, "We've got a good schedule for the team that we have this year. We've got a lot of good kids on our team, and it's going to bring us closer and determine how well we're going to do in the playoffs by the ending of our season."
This fall, Bagdad has been successful by relying on a potent spread offense that features occasional two-back sets, a swarming defense that takes pride in forcing turnovers and a superb kicking game.
Offensively, mobile, strong-armed Jeans (33-for-54, 602 yards, 11 passing TDs; 28 carries, 256 yards, 4 rushing TDs this season) and his younger brother, pass-catching sophomore running back Casey Jeans (47 rushes, 488 yards, 12 rushing TDs), carry the bulk of the load.
Junior wide receivers Low, who has 13 receptions for 299 yards and 5 TDs, and James Loveall (14 catches, 267 yards, 6 TDs) also stand out.
Mills said Low, who doubles as a defensive end with a team-high 14 sacks, is probably the Sultans' finest all-around athlete. Last Friday, Low scored two touchdowns against Joy Christian, including a 75-yard kick return and an interception return.
But Low, who has great vision and cutback-running skills, will sit out tonight vs. Salome because of a back injury he suffered in the fourth quarter of last week's loss.
"I'm probably like 70 percent," Low said of his health. "I'll be ready to go by next week."
Defensively, sophomore middle linebacker and leading tackler Justin Pacheco, tenacious strong-side junior LB C.J. Wade and junior cornerback Loveall have been mainstays alongside Low. With Low out this week, Pacheco will also see time in the offensive backfield as a power back.
On special teams, 5-foot-6, 132-pound senior place kicker Damian Jauregui has played a pivotal role not only as a fine field-goal and extra-points kicker but by consistently booting touchbacks on kickoffs on the eight-man game's shorter 80-yard field.
The future looks promising for Bagdad as a state-title contender in the coming years because of its players' talent, blue-collar work ethic, and the strength of the community's youth football organization.
"All of us like playing football, and that's what brings us together," Kendall Jeans said. "We've been playing with each other since we were little kids, so that's good for the bonding."
Mills agreed with Jeans' assessment.
"We have 33 kids in our program this year, and last year we only had about 20," Mills said. "We're getting numbers up and getting a commitment to the weight room. In two years, we're going to see a big jump."