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Spotlight on the NAIA

Firestorm to host #BeRelevant Classic this September

WEEKLY BLOG:  3/4/18

One of the perks of playing for a Division I FBS school is the opportunity to go to a bowl game.  The chances are good of doing so as there are currently 130 teams at that level and 39 bowl games (not including the national championship).  So, 60 percent of the schools end up bowl bound and receive the swag, reap a couple weeks of extra practices, and get the national television treatment.

Meanwhile, 93 teams will suit up players at NAIA colleges this fall.  While there is a 16-team playoff bracket, not much media attention is devoted to these schools.  Quite often there is the competition of larger NCAA institutions in the same region, or in a place like Phoenix, professional sports that garners the headlines.

But this fall, the Grand Canyon State Gridiron Club is shedding some light on a couple of these programs.  The group that brought back the Ed Doherty Award after a five-year hiatus has announced the inaugural #BeRelevant Classic.  It will be a college football game between Texas Wesleyan and Arizona Christian.  The Sooner Athletic Conference game will be hosted by ACU at Shadow Mountain High School on Saturday night, Sept. 22.

One of the ways both schools have made themselves relevant is with the introduction (or reintroduction) of their football programs.  Arizona Christian debuted in 2014 and the Firestorm have already won a couple of Central States Football League titles and compiled a 20-9 record over the past three seasons.  The team is coached by Jeff Bowen, who is entering his third year at the position.  In 2016, the former Westview head coach (11 seasons), was the CSFL Coach of the Year.  The school has made the most of the large and talented pool of players in Arizona as last year's roster had 42 from within the state.  In the most recent recruiting class last month, 19 of the 29 players went to high school in Arizona.

Texas Wesleyan played its first season last year since 1941.  Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the entire Rams football team enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II.  The football program was cancelled and didn't return to TWU for 76 years.  The head coach of the Rams is Joe Prud'homme, who won seven state titles in 24 seasons at Nolan Catholic High School. Like NCHS, Texas Wesleyan is located in Fort Worth.  It was a rough return to the field for the new members of the CSFL.  The only victory for the Rams came after the season as Wayland Baptist (Tex.) played an ineligible player and forfeited all of its wins.  However, junior running back Jermarcus Jones was named to the Second Team All-Conference, two other Rams made Honorable Mention, and 15 from TWU made the cut for Academic All-Conference, which requires 12 completed credit hours and a 3.0 cumulative GPA.

Both ACU and TWU are joining the Sooner Athletic Conference this season.  The SAC has been around for nearly 40 years, but this will be the first time the conference will field football teams.  A total of 10 schools will make up the conference with two located in Arizona (ACU and Ottawa).  The rest of the league consists of Langston (Okla.), Lyon (Ark.), Texas College, Bacone (Okla.), Southwestern Assemblies of God (Tex.), Wayland Baptist, and Oklahoma Panhandle State.  The #BeRelevant Classic will count towards the conference standings.

The Gridiron Club is planning a "bowl game" experience for both teams that will include visits to hospitals and schools in the community, a joint team dinner, commemorative jersey patches, and pregame ceremonies that will pay homage to the American armed forces, the storied history of the TWU program, and the respect both colleges have towards God and country.

PHOTO CAPTION:  The Arizona Christian marquee welcomes visitors to its campus at 25th Street & Cactus in North Phoenix.  It's hard to read in the picture, but it proudly proclaims that the athletes taking part in sports at ACU have posted grade point averages in the top five percent nationwide.  Last year, the Firestorm had nine players attain NAIA Football Scholar Athlete status.  To reach that, they had to be at least a junior with a cumulative GPA of 3.5 or higher.  ACU begins its fifth football season this September.  The Firestorm finished 7-3 in 2017 with the last of those games a 63-7 road victory over Texas Wesleyan in Fort Worth.  The teams will next see one another on Sept. 22 in the #BeRelevant Classic.

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Playing a new tune

Hamilton looks to Michigan to hire Zdebski as head coach

WEEKLY BLOG:  2/18/18

Hamilton has a 20-year history of success.  Last month, the Huskies hired a new head coach with a similar track record.

Mike Zdebski will be moving from Walled Lake Western HS in the Greater Detroit area to Chandler.  He found out he got the job on the night of Jan. 19.  In an e-mail interview, Zdebski said he was "extremely excited for the opportunity to coach at one of the best high schools in the country".

Many a Midwesterner has escaped that part of the country and relocated to Arizona.  The long Michigan winters (today's high in Detroit is 38) is part of the reason for the move.

"My wife hates the snow and loves to hike," Zdebski said.

He has coached at WLWHS sine 1994 and was both the offensive and defensive coordinator (in separate seasons) before taking over as the head coach in 1998.  That year happens to be the same that John Wrenn began the Hamilton program.  Both have been among the most consistent programs in their respective states.

Zdebski's teams made the playoffs in 14 of the past 15 seasons and the Warriors won the state titles in 1996 and 1999.  The Warriors had a record of 160-59 (.731) in Zdebski's tenure.

Hamilton has an all-time record of 231-33 (.875) and has made the playoffs in all 19 years in which it was a full-AIA member.  The last five years since the Huskies' last state title (its seventh in 2012), the program has experienced a drop, but still has a record of 48-16 (.750).

Under his guidance, Zdebski has had over 75 players move on to play football in college.  It is the life-changing process of not just turning them into football players, but upstanding young men that he takes away from his time in Michigan.

"The relationships that you build with players, families, the school staff, and the community are priceless," Zdebski said.  "The role you play in the development of our young people to be mature and responsible citizens is a blessing placed upon me that I respect and value."

For a long time, Walled Lake Western ran the Wing T Offense (1994-2010).  Since then, the Warriors have joined much of the nation in operating out of the spread.  Zdebski said since 2011, each starting quarterback for the Warriors was an All-State performer in Michigan and in the running for the coveted title of Mr. Football.  Last season's quarterback, Sam Johnson, is a junior that passed for 2,115 yards and 23 touchdowns.  He has double-digit offers, including ones from Syracuse, Iowa, Boston College, and Michigan.

At Hamilton, Zdebski will have to groom a new quarterback as Tyler Shough was a senior and enrolled early at Oregon.  One of the offensive returners for this season will be Mo Parson, a running back that had over 1,000 all-purpose yards.  Parson averaged 6.8 yards per carry as a junior.  The new signal caller will also have a pair of returning receivers in Brandon Schenks (who will be a senior) and Brenden Rice (a junior).  The duo combined for 1,158 yards and 17 TD receptions.  Defensively, the top tackler will be back with Ryan Guerrero.  The linebacker had 102 tackles and three sacks in his junior year.

Zdebski is in the process of interviewing potential coaches for his staff.  He is working with his district in finding a way to be at HHS for spring ball at the beginning of May.

This is Zdebski's 30th year of teaching and his degree is from Olivet College (Mich.).  He will be an on-campus faculty member at Hamilton working in the math and physical education departments.

One thing Zdebski has learned from a previous coach revolves around what he has done at Walled Lake Western and what he is currently doing to prepare for this next venture.

"Be organized, be about the kids, and surround yourself with great people," Zdebski said.

The timing worked well for his move to Arizona as Hamilton found itself with an opening.  Because of the hazing scandal that resulted in child abuse charges being filed, the Chandler Unified School District announced that the football program would move on without longtime head coach Steve Belles (2006-2016).  Dick Baniszewski coached the team on an interim basis for last season.  He did not seek the position beyond 2017. 

Last week, the Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery decided not to file criminal charges against Belles, Athletic Director Shawn Rustad, and Principal Ken James.  The reason cited was a lack of witnesses that had knowledge of incidences of sexual assaults.


2018 Hamilton Schedule

      '17 Record
 8-17  CHAPARRAL     (7-5)
 8-24  at Highland     (8-4)
 8-31  at Arbor View (NV)    (10-1)
9- 7  TOLLESON    (5-5)
 9-14  at Mountain Pointe    (10-3)
 9-21  DOBSON    (3-7)
 9-28  at Brophy    (1-9)
10- 5  at Basha    (2-8)
 10-12  Bye    
 10-19  PERRY    (12-2)
 10-26  CHANDLER    (13-2)    
  Total Record of Opponents    (71-46)

PHOTO CAPTION:  The Hamilton Marching Huskies perform their halftime show last season at home in Chandler.  The group received an Excellent rating at the Division II State Marching Festival, which it hosted last November.  The Huskies will open their season at home on August 17 against Chaparral.  The band is under the direction of Julie Trent.  She has been a music educator in Arizona since 2003.

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HC Copeland steps down at Kellis

QB Peterson will have new coach leading Cougars in his senior year

WEEKLY BLOG:  2/12/18

Shawn Copeland has resigned as head football coach of the Raymond S. Kellis Cougars.

Reached Monday by e-mail, Copeland said he has stepped down from the position.

"I have decided to pursue opportunities back in Texas to get my family closer to other family and friends we have missed since moving here to Arizona almost five years ago," Copeland said.

Prior to his arrival in the state, Copeland spent 12 years coaching varsity football at McKinney HS in the Dallas area.

Copeland teaches within the Physical Education department at Kellis, specificially with weight training classes.

His teams compiled a record of 19-22 in his four years as the head coach of the Peoria District school located in Glendale in the shadows of University of Phoenix Stadium.  But, it's a tale of two halves.

After two years of developing the freshman and JV teams, Copeland was promoted to head coach prior to the 2014 season.  That team struggled through a winless year as it was vastly inexperienced, particularly along the offensive line.  The Cougars ended their 10-game losing streak in the opener of the '15 season against Washington and showed improvement throughout, but the defense surrendered 397 points in a 3-7 campaign.

Kellis was bumped up from Division III to 5A in next realignment block and enjoyed a 9-1 regular season along with the Metro Region title.  The Cougars were playoff bound for the first time in six years, but lost in a heartbreaker first-round game late at Marana.  Last season, RSKHS was 7-3 and ranked 15th.  However, a weak non-region schedule (opponents' record was 13-37) along with two lower-ranked region winners (with automatic bids) kept the Cougars out of the postseason.

Copeland attributes much of the success over the past two years to one simple word - Commitment.

"Our numbers in the offseason and summertime have improved dramatically since taking over," Copeland said.

Copeland said he appreciated his experience as head coach of the football team at Kellis.

"The kids at Kellis have been awesome," Copeland said.  "I have enjoyed every second being around them all.  Our administration and staff are incredible, too.  I have also been blessed to have worked with really good coaches."

Taking a look ahead to this fall, while we don't know who the new head coach will be, whoever takes over will have an experienced quarterback at the controls.  Junior Cade Peterson passed for 2,161 yards and 24 touchdowns in a balanced Cougar offense.  5-foot-5 running back Elijah Juarez, also a junior, was Kellis' leading rusher with 644 yards in just seven games.  Another junior, wide receiver Plas Johnson, led the Cougars in scoring with 13 touchdowns (one on a kick return).

Peterson's best game was his final one of the year.  In a 52-46 shootout win over Ironwood, the 6-2, 170-pound signal caller threw for 389 yards and four touchdowns (plus one rushing).

"Cade has been a model of consistency on and off the field as a Cougar," Copeland said.  "He has been very successful as a QB only losing four games in three years (including JV and Frosh).  He should be in for a big senior year.

While the Cougars have shifted around in both classification and region, Ironwood has been a consistent.  Kellis has played the Glendale school in each of the past seven years (IHS leads series 4-3).  Copeland considers the Eagles their closest rival.

The time for change has reared its head once again and in Copeland's mind it was an ugly head as the Metro Region (where the Cougars went 7-3 over two years) was dissolved.  Four of the schools (Apollo, Ironwood, Kellis, and Sunnyslope) were placed in the 5A Northwest Region with two strong powers in north Peoria (Centennial and Sunrise Mountain).  Kellis appealed to be placed in the Desert West Region with Agua Fria, Goldwater, Independence, Millennium, Verrado, and Willow Canyon, but was denied.

"It is tough to justify to us why we are not playing the schools that are near to us and the AIA is allowing two schools (Goldwater and Willow Canyon) to drive through our area to play in that region," Copeland said.  "At the end of the day it is what it is.  However, we are excited about the challenge that Centennial and Sunrise will add to our schedule."

Kellis will kick off its 13th season of varsity football on Aug. 24 in North Phoenix at Goldwater.  It will be the first meeting between the Cougars and Bulldogs.

2018 Kellis Schedule

      '17 Record
 8-24  at Goldwater     (4-6)
 8-31  CAMPO VERDE    (7-4)
9- 7  at Fairfax    (7-4)
 9-14  at Casteel    (14-0)
 9-21  at Independence    (3-7)
 9-28  SUNNYSLOPE    (6-5)
10- 5  SUNRISE MOUNTAIN    (11-2)
 10-12  APOLLO    (8-3)
 10-19  at Centennial    (12-1)
 10-26  IRONWOOD    (2-8)    
  Total Record of Opponents    (74-40)

PHOTO CAPTION:  Kellis quarterback Cade Peterson takes off on a run in a road game from last season.  Peterson did most of his damage through the air (24 TD passes), but also rushed for 372 yards (5.6 yards/carry) and four touchdowns.  The next head coach of the Cougars will be just the third in the school's 13 years.  RSKHS has never won a playoff game (0-4 all-time).  (Photo Courtesy of Shawn Copeland)

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Brophy's Red Army waits for a leader

February should bring a new head coach to Broncos

WEEKLY BLOG:  2/3/18

As we creep along through the offseason, still three months from spring ball, some of the coaching vacancies continue to be filled.  In the past couple of weeks, Mountain Pointe hired Rich Wellbrock.  Wellbrock was previously at Basha, which created an opening for the Bears.  That was filled on Friday with the hiring of Chris McDonald.  Of course, the falling of the dominoes means there is now a coach needed at Maricopa.

One that has been open since last November is at Brophy College Preparatory. 

In one of the more impressive streaks you will see, Scooter Molander led the Broncos to a first round win in each of his first 12 seasons at the helm of the private all-male Phoenix school.

That came to a crashing halt in 2017 as Brophy finished with just one win.  It was a thrilling nail-biter against Westview in which the Broncos trailed 27-20 before rallying in the final minute with a touchdown pass from Noah Gonzales to tight end John Waters.  A gutsy move by Molander in going for two provided the winning points as Gonzales completed a pass to fullback Erik Dimaria for the successful conversion.

But it wasn't that down year that forced BCP to make a change.

"Coach Molander stepped down because he needed to dedicate more time to his family," Brophy Athletic Director Bill Woods said in an e-mail interview.  "Both of his parents were in ICU and his family needed to be his priority."

Brophy is in the process of interviewing prospective candidates and hopes to name a coach in the next couple of weeks.

One of the unique aspects about BCP is that it's the only Jesuit high school in Arizona.  Its curriculum is a combination of liberal arts principles and Roman Catholic theology.  The motto is displayed on the Broncos' jerseys on Friday nights.

"Brophy wears the letters AMDG on our uniforms," Woods said.  "They stand for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, meaning for the greater glory of God."

The Broncos have enjoyed life at the top of the mountain in football with state titles in 2005 and 2007.  Currently, both the soccer and basketball programs are ranked No. 1.  Woods said that while the expectation is for all of its sports to excel, there is more to it than solely looking at the scoreboard.

"A successful football program will be one where the athletes reach their potential physically and as teammates, to grow to become Men for Others," Woods said.

Looking at the roster, the offense will need to be rebuilt.  Gonzales, Dimaria (the team's top rusher), and leading receiver Donovan Arthur are all seniors.  Its likely the defense will be the strength of the Broncos this fall. 

Safety Marques White led the team in tackles with 90.  The 6-3, 200-pound junior also recorded four sacks, recovered three fumbles, and forced five more.  He was a First Team All-6A Premier Region selection.  Another player back for his senior year will be Andrew Onyepunuka.  The linebacker had 81 tackles and seven sacks.

There is a new realignment for the 2018 season, but nothing changes in the Premier Region as all five schools remain intact.  It will once again be Chandler, Hamilton, Perry, and Basha lining up with the Broncos in league play.

"I appreciate that the Chandler Unified School District has welcomed us into their region," Woods said.  "Historically, Brophy was aligned in conferences with the North Phoenix and Paradise Valley schools.  I think that is where we have our natural rivalries."

Looking at the schedule, Brophy won't be playing any of those "natural" rivals like Horizon, Desert Mountain, or Pinnacle this season.  Four of the Broncos' six opponents weren't in the playoffs last season.  Whoever Brophy's new coach ends up being, he should get off to a good start with Shadow Ridge, Tolleson, Copper Canyon, and Alhambra all before the end of September.  Don't fault the school for lining up what might seem to be lesser opponents - They don't get to pick them anymore.

"The AIA does not have freedom games anymore," Woods said.  "The 6A committee does the scheduling.  For out-of-region games, they do look at many factors."

Those factors include the power rankings from the previous year (of which Brophy was #29) and records among the lower levels.  Last season, the Bronco JV team was 3-6 and the Frosh were 2-7.

With a few head coaches taking similar positions elsewhere, the next question that could arise is will Brophy's new hire open up another head coaching spot in the state?  That, we'll have to wait to see.

2018 Brophy Schedule

      '17 Record
 8-17  at Liberty    (11-2)
 8-24  SHADOW RIDGE     (2-8)
 8-31  at Tolleson    (5-5)
9- 7  COPPER CANYON    (5-5)
 9-14  at Mesa Mountain View    (6-5)
 9-21  ALHAMBRA    (3-7)
 9-28  HAMILTON    (8-4)
10- 5  at Chandler    (13-2)
 10-12  at Perry    (12-2)
 10-19  BASHA    (2-8)
 10-26  Bye            
  Total Record of Opponents    (67-48)

PHOTO CAPTION:  Brophy Prep's famed Red Army takes up a large section at home games at Hoy Field on the campus of Phoenix College.  The Broncos' first home game this season will be on Aug. 24 against Shadow Ridge.  Brophy lost all four of its home games last year.  The Broncos' last victory in front of their fans was on November 4, 2016 against Pinnacle in a first-round 6A playoff game.

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