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Previewing the Top 50 high school football teams in California: No. 40 Apple Valley looks to pick up where it left off

Apple Valley is one of the fastest-rising programs in the Southern Section. After graduating the best senior class in school history, what comes next?

SBLive is previewing the Top 50 high school football teams in California ahead of the 2022 season. Here’s an inside look at the Apple Valley Sun Devils of the CIF Southern Section, the No. 40 team in our countdown.

APPLE VALLEY TEAM PAGE | 2022 FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

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HEAD COACH

Kyle Godfrey:

  • 3rd season as Apple Valley head coach
  • Overall record: 15-4

2021-22 AT A GLANCE

  • Overall record: 10-4
  • League record: 4-1 (2nd in Mojave River League)
  • Defeated Citrus Valley, Glendora, and Roosevelt (Eastvale) to make CIFSS Division 3 finals
  • Lost to Serra (Gardena) in finals

2022 SCHEDULE

All games are at 7 p.m. unless noted otherwise.

  • Aug. 12 @ Cajon (SCRIMMAGE) – 6 p.m.
  • Aug. 19 @ Eastlake
  • Aug. 26 @ Rancho Cucamonga
  • Sep. 2 vs. Murrieta Valley
  • Sep. 9 @ Victor Valley
  • Sep. 16 vs. Silverado
  • Sep. 29 @ Serrano – 7:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 6 @ Sultana – 7:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 14 vs. Hesperia
  • Oct. 21 vs. Oak Hills
  • Oct. 27 vs. Burroughs (Ridgecrest) – 7:30 p.m.

1ST TEAM ALL-MOJAVE RIVER LEAGUE PLAYERS DEPARTED

  • QB Jayden Denegal
  • RB/OLB Kaleb Most
  • WR/DB Logan Moon
  • OL Ty Johnson
  • ILB Gavin Hambrick
  • DE Keenan Eck
  • NG/DT JD Reed
  • WR/DB Nate Downing

PLAYERS TO WATCH

ILB/RB Dustin Reynolds – SR.

Named the MRL Defensive Player of the Year (spring) and Victorville Daily Press Player of the Year (fall) in one calendar year, Reynolds enters his senior season as one of the best linebackers in the state. As a junior he recorded 125 tackles, 19 TFLs, and nine sacks, and also ran for over 400 yards in the playoffs when called on at RB. Don't expect Reynolds to be tasked with too much of an offensive load, but do expect another High Desert MVP-caliber season. He has offers from Arizona State and Nevada.

OL Raymond Pulido – SR.

raymond pulido apple valley

At 6-7, 345, Pulido is one of the top offensive lineman and outright largest football players in the state. He has at least 14 D-1 offers, mostly Power-5, including Alabama and Michigan.

WR/CB Isaiah Ojeda – SR.

Ojeda is a 3-star CB and also the leading returning receiver (303 yards, four touchdowns) on the team. He recorded 67 tackles as a junior, and has three D-1 offers.

Coach Godfrey: "Ojeda is a leader in a lot of senses. Between his knowledge of the game and ability to coach the younger players, which he does quietly, behind the scenes trying to make them better. He's a really good one-on-one DB, and if we put him on an island I have full confidence in him."

Coach Meras: "On offense, Ojeda is our best bet to be a deep threat. In our playoff run he moved to corner from safety, and he'll stay at corner. If he ups his game more and continues to step it up, we're gonna step it up with him."

DL/TE Jirah Leaupepetele – SR.

At 6-2 and a little over 300 lbs, Leaupepetele remains Apple Valley's Swiss Army knife in the trenches. He'll start at DE, likely play some NG, and see time at OL, TE, and FB/HB on offense. Last season recorded 50 tackles, five tackles for loss, and five sacks.

Coach Meras: "Jirah is a captain, he leads the ship. We go as he goes. He was our utility guy up front last year and will be even better this year."

Coach Godfrey: "I like where Jirah is at, he's lost a little weight but he's gotten more explosive and all his [lifting] numbers went up."

TE/MLB Brandon Armijo – SR.

Expect the reigning First Team All-League member to take another step as a senior. Armijo caught for 96 yards and a touchdown last season, and should get more targets as a senior, which may even include lining up as a regular wideout sometimes. He's also likely to get some reps at HB, and will be a bigger contributor on defense this season at mike.

QB Noah Celie – JR.

Celie took over under center in Apple Valley's penultimate regular season game after Michigan commit Jayden Denegal suffered a season-ending injury. In six games, he completed 53 of 91 passes for 697 yards and seven touchdowns.

Coach Meras: "Noah is doing great. He's 6-0, 195, and tore up the weight room this offseason. Especially after last year, he's ready to hit the ground running. He can throw the deep ball, his accuracy is really good and getting better, and he's going to run the ball. In terms of his ethic and intangibles, skill-wise and physically, he's the closest thing to (former Apple Valley star) Jeff Widener."

Coach Godfrey: "He's absorbing knowledge every day. You can tell he wants to be the guy. I think he has a chip on his shoulder, and it's good. He has pretty good arm strength, and we love his mental toughness and physical toughness. "

OLB/QB Isaiah Zuniga – SR.

Zuniga transferred to Apple Valley from Sultana and is likely to be a key cog this season.

Coach Meras: "He's starting at OLB and we are expecting big things from him. He's also our QB2 and may play some TE. He transferred in January and got a lot of votes for team captain from his teammates, which is crazy because of how tight our kids are and shows you what kind of kid he is. He works hard and earns everyone's respect."

WR/RB/CB Zyron Belcher – JR. 

A speedy transfer from Hesperia, Belcher is likely to be a featured offensive threat (primarily at slot receiver) and an important contributor in the secondary.

OL Jonah Leaupepetele – SO.

Leaupepetele is 6-3, 335, can play anywhere on the line, and already has an offer from San Jose State. Expect him to be a force primarily at left guard.

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Coach Godfrey: "You're going to see him step up. He started in two playoff games as a freshman, the experience he had was huge. He's a giant body and a workhorse." 

Top breakout candidates:

OL/NG Francisco DeJesus, OL Alex Arias, CB Christopher Mercado, WR Ronald Mendoza, RB Xavier Salazar, OLB/RB Josh Soria, OL Layne Johnston, OL Ethan Rivera, DB Kayden Struebing

BEST-CASE SCENARIO

2021 was an incredible year for Apple Valley football. And that was no surprise to anyone who'd been paying attention leading up to the last two seasons.

What was surprising to many was that the Sun Devils still made the Southern Section Division 3 finals despite an insane late-season injury bug that cost them many of their best players. A lot of them returned once they'd already embarked on their playoff run, but not star QB Jayden Denegal, one of the biggest names in High Desert history, who's now at Michigan. That proved what they could do even without their biggest name, and also provided invaluable experience for a handful of other underclassmen who are now lynchpins of the program, particularly Celie.

The Sun Devils' offensive line was dominant last season. That was a big reason they were able to compete against some of the top teams in the entire section, and a big reason they could still score on very good playoff teams with half of their skill guys injured. Even with some new faces, they're expecting their front five to potentially take another step this year. Pulido leads the charge, and he'll have multiple 300-pounders around him in Jonah Leaupepetele and Francisco DeJesus before even factoring in Jirah Leaupepetele at TE, OL, or HB/FB. Additionally, with Alex Arias returning at RT and Layne Johnston and Ethan Rivera in the mix, this group is deep.

"This O-line is one of the strongest groups we've had," Godfrey said. "I think it'll be a little different look, but I'm real happy with where the guys are at."

"We were strong last year, but physically this is the strongest we've ever been in the weight room," said Meras. "I'll back what I said last year – this might be the best we've ever been up front."

If they can also replace some key departures in the front seven, then Apple Valley will retain its identity as a big, physical team that beats you up at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Last postseason, that was enough to light the path to victory even in games where they dealt with particularly challenging matchups.

This squad has a lot more question marks than its previous two iterations did. The Sun Devils lost eight First Team All-MRL seniors and a handful of other impact starters. But they still have a large chunk of the established talent they've depended on in 2021, and a host of new faces with opportunities to break out. Plus a lot more experience after last postseason.

To start with, a best-case scenario would be the Sun Devils not only winning league but doing it emphatically, which they did in the COVID-shortened season. It's far from implausible that Apple Valley goes undefeated for the regular season, which would almost certainly put them in Division 2. Then they'd have an opportunity to win playoff games over some of the elite programs in the Southern Section. 

A 9-1 season or 8-2 season would also be great as long as they peak come playoff time. That would put the Sun Devils in great position to make Division 3 and pick up where they left off in their title quest.

MOST REALISTIC SCENARIO

If Apple Valley stays healthy this season, it's hard to imagine a finish outside of the top four divisions. It's equally hard to imagine that the team isn't ready to bring its best in November. 

Should the Sun Devils struggle more than anticipated during the regular season, they'd likely be in the Division 4-5 range. That could still put them on track to compete against other great teams for their first ever CIFSS title and potentially a CIF Division 1 or 2 State playoff birth.

COACH SAID

"Our goal is to get back to a CIF championship, and now win it. [Losing in the finals] was total heartbreak, obviously, but it was a big step in the right direction. We had a great summer in 7-on-7s and in the weight room, and the question is, will these kids who had big summers make it translate to pads."

"We are trying to prove that we're the best team in the High Desert, and the High Desert deserves respect. We're not going to settle for just those goals, but that's our mindset.

"In the High Desert, we have to play with a chip on our shoulder, because we're still continuing to earn respect and be that household name. I don't think we have the opportunity to sneak up on people anymore like we have sometimes in the last couple years, but we want the big moment. We know that the finals wasn't our best showing, regardless of injuries, and we have to continue to prove that we belong. We get good kids who want to work hard, and the other half of it is the coaches grinding and sacrificing. Plus the great support we get from admins, boosters, and sponsors.

"If I could say one thing about this coaching staff, it's how we want the best for our kids, and our staff's passion every minute to do what's best for our kids. We are relentless at trying to get guys opportunities outside of the Desert, and some of our kids will come back one day and bring something better."

"My first season, those kids wanted to prove ourselves as a program, and they did it by getting on the field and hating everybody in their path. Then [last fall] was more of a family environment. We were playing for our brothers. I don't know if the kids 'hated' anybody last fall, but they played hard for each other.

"This year is a little different, we've got a bunch of hungry dogs that just want to play and fight. They just love football and smacking the heck out of people. I just want to see how the first week of pads goes. What is that extra motivational factor for this group? That's what we're still going to find out."

--Head coach Kyle Godfrey

"Oak Hills beat us and Serrano is a CIF champion. We've embedded in our kids eyes that we're the third or fourth best team out here unless [proven otherwise]. Telling them, you lost to Oak Hills and didn't win a CIF championship because you couldn't perform on the biggest stage. That's what we're harping on."

"We have more skill and line depth than we've ever had – it's a matter of finding out which kids can will be ready to step up come game time. The first five weeks will tell us a lot. It'll be a bit of a revolving door at [some positions] and we'll want to get that nailed down by league play."

"The kids have been unbelievable in the weight room this offseason. Coach Anthony Morales has taken our strength & conditioning program and our weight room to another level. He's the biggest reason we are the strongest team we've ever had, with at least five kids squatting over 500."

"Just having Noah's, Armijo's, Jirah's, Reynolds', Ojeda's leadership gives us confidence. They were big players in that playoff run and know what it takes to succeed at that level. We're not going to set the bar to pick up new guys, they have to jump over the bar."

--Assistant coach/offensive coordinator Robert Meras

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