Zone Read: Big Game Week

Arizona Sports News online

The Verdict Is in

This was the celebration you heard booming across the Valley Tuesday morning from Arizona Avenue and Ocotillo Road in Chandler.

It’s, without question, a feel good story for the Hamilton High players, coaches, and parents who have been dragged through the mud by a small handful of individuals who made themselves bigger than the program.

I’m extremely happy the players get an opportunity to play in the post-season, especially considering the off-season grind they’ve put in since they last walked off the field back in early December.

Redemption can be sweet.

However, it just feels like Tim Dougherty, his arrogant, bombastic attorney, head coach Mike Zdebski, and Hamilton AD Brett Palmer, who botched this entire recruiting scandal with their laissez faire approach, were gifted not one, but two get out of jail free cards from the AIA.

A warning.


That’s quite the 180-degree pivot, considering how harsh the initial punishment (an entire 2022 post-season ban) was to some.

“We never want to be in a situation where we are punishing students and punishing student-athletes,” Executive Board President Dr. Jim Dean said Tuesday. “And so, we appreciate the reflection that was done by the Chandler school district. Appreciate Superintendent Frank Narducci and his direct involvement in their reflection and further corrective action as they move forward.”

Forgive and forget, huh?

What sort of message is this sending to every Arizona high school who is, and has been, following the AIA bylaws?

Let me be crystal clear before continuing: by an overwhelming majority, coaching staffs, administrators, and schools do abide by the rules. But now, due to Tuesday’s decision, the ones who haven’t, know exactly how far to push the “boundaries” – whatever those are now.

This ruling is troublesome for Arizona high school football, especially considering how territorial the southeast Valley has become with several players flip-flopping schools for “better situation” as most say.

Quite simply, 7-on-7 tournaments could turn into official visits for opposing coaches looking to poach talent.

Arizona high school football has become a high-stakes game.

It’s just a shame some playing are counting cards and the pit bosses are simply too scared to ask them to leave the table.

Welcome to the National Stage

Everyone who plays, watches, covers, or has any other connection to local high school football takes great pride in Arizona’s high-level competition, as well as quality of players State 48 produces seemingly every recruiting cycle.

Sure, the Valley, and Tucson, continues to swell in population as local developers struggle to keep up with the housing demand, but Arizona high school football has been on the map for a minute. I don’t think the talent level is going to drop anytime soon, if ever, considering the incredible coaches, accommodating year-round weather, lavish facilities, administrators’ commitment to winning, and seemingly every other advantage that makes Arizona, arguably, a Top 10 state for prep football. 

I’d argue the pre-game vibe before Hamilton’s wild comeback win last year over national power Bishop Gorman (NV) in Chandler, rivaled anything I’d seen before on a Friday night in the fall, or any setting of a state championship game. You could feel the energy walking through the parking lot.

The game didn’t count in the region standings but it felt like there was a something much bigger in play, especially with an ESPN audience watching.

Speaking of bigger, let “Zone Read” quickly introduce you to one of Saguaro’s biggest concerns Friday night, Bergen Catholic (NJ) four-star defensive tackle, and University of Texas commit, Sydir Mitchell.

Those are awfully quick feet, and a nimble skill-set, for a 6-foot-5, 355-pound man child who has been playing high-level, varsity football since his freshman year.  

While the Sabercats return only one full-time offensive line starter from 2021 (Amare Taase), there is plenty of experience, as well as shifty senior quarterback Devon Dampier, who is magical at improvising when the pocket breaks down or a play goes sideways.

Bergen Catholic has all the size and skill to give the defending Open Division Champions fits, but not have to travel across the country, and playing a game where the kickoff temperature could be close to, or at, 100 degrees plays right into #SagU’s advantage. 

How will Bergen Catholic handle playing a game which kicks off after 10:00PM EST?

Elsewhere, as Sports360AZ boss guy Brad Cesmat scripted last weekend, it’s a homecoming game of sorts for Rick Garretson who returns to San Diego with his nationally ranked and loaded (again), Chandler Wolves to play Cathedral Catholic.

Sure, I can’t wait to see Dylan Raiola spin it (totally forgot he’s just a junior – scary!) but even more intrigued to see how the Wolves’ reloaded defensively, having to replace ball hawks like Noah Sauni (115 tackles in 2021), Dason Brooks (105 tackles), Devin Dunn (96 tackles), and Isiah Johnson (91 tackles).

“Zone Read” just can’t wait for the weekend.

Fluent in English

What started with so much promise, ended in a matter of seconds.

After sitting the AIA-required five games last fall, per transfer rules, new Saguaro wide receiver Deric English picked up right where he left as a sophomore at Mountain Ridge High, shredding overmatched opposing secondaries.

This mid-October night last fall, it was Sierra Canyon (CA) who had trouble stopping the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder.

That is, until his ACL stopped himself, and shut down his entire junior season, less than one full game quarter into Week 6, and his first game as a Sabercat.

“I didn’t know what to think, but I knew it was bad,” English said to the “Zone Read” of his then-torn ACL. “It was the weirdest feeling ever. It probably took me two days of reflection. It happens. Everybody faces adversity. I just had to wrap my head around it.”

He also had a few heart-to-heart conversations with Mohns.

“You just have to remind him of the big picture,” he explained of their talks. “The initial panic and concern is, ‘Oh, no. My future.’ I just told him, this is part of the game. The reality of this game is, just about everybody who plays it at a high level, is going to go through something like this at some point in their career. His demeanor and his personality really helped him get through it.”

The road eventually leads back to the ultimate crescendo – English back healthy, walking up the stairs from the Saguaro locker room with his teammates, and back under those majestic Friday nights lights, facing heavyweight Bergen Catholic.

The last 10 months were, at times, long, and filled with plenty of uncertainty.  

He had to learn to trust not only his knee, but the entire rehabilitation process – both mentally and physically.

“Right when I got hurt, it was like. ‘Why is this happening to me?'” English explained. “There’s always something that’s trying to hold you back, and [the injury] was it for me.”

The 2023 four-star recruit, who holds offers from Arizona, ASU, Florida State, Michigan State, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and several others, didn’t allow much time for self-pity or “what if’s.” He attacked rehab with the same aggression he does a contested fade route to the back corner of the end zone. His mother would drive him to his specialist appointments, and he received extra treatment on campus from well-respected Saguaro head athletic trainer, Nicki May.

“She told me it starts with getting your head right, first,” English said of May’s advice. “She got me to realize that [the injury] is what it is, and if I wanted to be the best, I had to put in the (rehab) work. I’d go in during practices last fall and get treatment, ice, and just talk to her. It really helped.”

Earlier this summer, he was given the ultimate tip of the cap from his teammates and coaches.

English was named one of the six 2022 Saguaro team captains.

“It’s a testament to him,” Mohns noted. ” His character, his personality. It’s unbelievable. He’s one of the most energetic, contagious personalities I’ve ever been around. He makes people better.”