At least on the volleyball court they are.
As the boy's volleyball season swings into regional play, several teams from the Northwest believe they have a legitimate shot at making a serious run toward a state title.
Behind those beliefs are Hallowell of Canyon Del Oro High School, Vanzant of Mountain View High School and Garwacki of Ironwood Ridge High School. Combined on the year, all three squads are 45-8. Separate, they are regional foes standing in the way of each other's state title dreams.
"I think the Northwest has got more good teams this year than it's ever had," said Hallowell, a senior.
To a man, the Dorados feel they are the team to beat this year in Class 5A.
In the past 14 years, CDO has failed to win the Class 5A Southern Region title only twice, in 1994 and 2003.
CDO (16-2, 2-0) flexed its muscles at the Brophy Invitational Tournament, April 2, sweeping Gilbert Highland in the championship game, 25-15, 25-23. With a win over Mountain Pointe in the semifinals, CDO avenged its only loss of the year before the Brophy Invite. In pool play, CDO fell to Desert Vista, in a match McDonald referred to as a hiccup. The Dorados recovered fully to dominate in the remainder of the tourney. Setter Steven Madsen was named Player of the Tournament by the coaches.
"I think it's good we lost," said CDO head coach Patrick McDonald of the team's loss to Mountain Pointe. "Now we know we're vulnerable and we still have a lot to work on."
McDonald has been with CDO for 14 years, the last three of them as head coach.
Because boys volleyball isn't as prevalent throughout the state as it is in Tucson, Class 4A and 5A share a state tournament. There are only 45 schools with boys volleyball in both Class 4A and Class 5A, 22 of which are south of Phoenix. This year's state finals will be held May 9 through 14 at Brophy High School in Phoenix.
Despite the numbers elsewhere, volleyball in the Northwest is flourishing. After all, the Northwest is the birthplace of the sport in the state.
Before then, the Dorados were known as the Hitmen because they were still a club team and were not allowed to go by the school's Dorado moniker. To this day the program still prefers to go by Hitmen. Other programs soon followed, and before long, boys volleyball was recognized by the Arizona Interscholastic Association. Since then powerhouse programs have arisen in Phoenix, such as Mountain Pointe, Brophy and Highland.
Bill Lang of IRHS was there in the beginning with McDonald at CDO. Now he is piloting a new program at IRHS. In just three years, Lang's Nighthawks have steadily increased their win total and have established themselves as the team to beat in the Class 4A Sonoran Region.
At the Hitman Classic held at CDO in early March, IRHS (18-3, 5-0) took third overall, ahead of tough competition from Phoenix.
"I think we can hold our own against the 5A teams," said Lang, who coached the IRHS girls team to the title of Class 4A state runner-up this year.
"If we can hang with the big guys in the beginning," said team captain Garwacki, "just think how well we'll do toward the end."
This year's flock of Nighthawks comprises the best blocking team the program has ever had, Garwacki said.
Garwacki's brother was a state champion in volleyball at CDO in 1996.
When all is said and done at the end of the year, and the season's hardware is passed out, it may come as no surprise if the state's Player of the Year hails from the Northwest. CDO's Steve Madsen, IRHS's middle blocker Robert Humphrey and Mountain View's outside hitter Matt Vanzant are all realistic contenders for the state's top honor.
Vanzant and company have their eyes set on dethroning CDO for the region's top spot. Through the squad's first 19 games, the Mountain Lions were 15-4, 1-2 including a tough loss to the Dorados at CDO, March 31.
The Mountain Lions gave CDO a scare, dropping two close games 25-21 and 25-22.
Rick Ellis' Mountain View squad is laden with senior talent. Like IRHS, Mountain View's program is in its third season with the school. Aside from Vanzant, setter Derek Burzloff, middle blocker Kyle Jenks and Outside Hitter Luke Smith cap off a lineup with the potential to beat anyone.
Other area programs are struggling to hold their own against the regional powerhouses. Through April 4, Marana held the Sonoran Region's third spot, despite a losing overall record at 3-4, 2-1. Conversely, at Catalina Foothills, the Falcons are near the bottom of the Kino Region with a 2-5, 1-2 mark.
The club season will resume in June, when Club Cactus heads to the national tournament in Louisville, Ky. About that time, Vanzant, Garwicki and Hallowell will go back to being friends and teammates. Until then it's anyone's volley.