Zone Read: Premiere for a Reason

Arizona Sports News online

 “Every week you better bring your A-game, unless you’re going to be in trouble.” 

If anyone knows, it’s Chandler head coach Rick Garretson, whose team has lived at the top of the high school food chain, for nearly a decade, among Arizona’s most unforgiving collection of 6A powers, known as the Premiere Region.

The southeast Valley is littered with big school, high-end programs who have achieved sustained success but, top to bottom, the Premiere is just built different.

Besides traditional blue bloods Chandler and Hamilton, Basha has seen a football revival the past few years under Chris McDonald, Perry appears to be back on track under first-year head coach Joseph Ortiz, and Casteel, after a perfect 14-0 3A State Championship season in 2017, has made the playoffs every year since, despite ascending up to 6A play before the 2020 season.

This prep power five flexed their muscles in Week One, going undefeated, with a trio of wins over out of state powers – all on the road.

Quite simply, the results speak for themselves.

“I think, without question, our [region] is the number one league in the state, and one of the best in the country,” Garretson said to the “Zone Read.” “You have three teams like Chandler, Hamilton, and Basha all somewhere nationally ranked at the beginning of this year.” 

So, what consistently sets the Premiere Region apart from others?

It’s a myriad of factors, many of which stretch far deeper than the continued excellence under the Friday night lights.

“Look at Chandler High, king of the hill, right?” McDonald explained to the “Zone Read.” “You’ve got other people around here in the southeast Valley who want to take them down. They want to build their program up to that status, as well. You have Chandler Unified with all schools very successful in all of athletics. Well, other districts want a piece of that, too.” 

The overflow of talent in the area also provides equal opportunity due to open enrollment.

“Part of it is any kid can come out of middle school and go to any [high] school that he wants to,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said to the “Zone Read.” “So, you want to provide a good product and show that you can develop them. I think [the Premiere Region] does a really good job of developing players. I think this area has a lot of hard-working coaches.” 

Many credit long-time CUSD Superintendent Camille Casteel, who retired from the district at the end of the 2020 school year, for paving the path to athletic success for each one of the member schools. Current superintendent, Frank Narducci, has continued what Casteel started, including the personal touches, like the tradition of taking every CUSD varsity football coach out to breakfast before the start of the season.

“It started in the Premiere Region with an overall commitment to athletics,” Ortiz noted to the “Zone Read.” “Not just in football, but athletics as a whole. Chandler Unified School District’s motto is, ‘Second to None.’ The teams around here that are in the Gilbert district, the Higley district, the Queen Creek district – they have to play catch up and do the same thing. In the Chandler district, they want every school to be great. It’s crazy. It’s super competitive.” 

Chandler Unified’s competitive balance, as we’ve seen this summer, can be a slippery slope, but the success of all, benefits all, when considering the big-picture goals of many of these in-district standout student-athletes. 

“CUSD has a curriculum which allows us to have a foundation for success within our programs and you’ve got a lot of players in the southeast Valley,” Garretson said. “Not everybody goes to the same school so you get a lot of parity. That’s why so many [college] recruiters come to the southeast Valley. They want to see all that action.”

As previously mentioned above by Zdebski, the coaching staffs also deserve ample credit for the overall success of the five programs.

“Coaches in the Premiere Region communicate and work together to create the best experiences for their players,” Casteel head coach Bobby Newcombe said to the “Zone Read.”

Above all else, there’s a genuine respect factor among the head coaches and their staffs.

“I hope we’re all good,” Ortiz noted. “Coach McDonald is a good friend of mine and we hang out outside of football. We only don’t like each other one day out of the year. I hope [Basha] has sustained success. We’re all competing. When you go into region play, you have no idea who’s going to win the region. Right now most people feel it’s a three-team race with Chandler, Hamilton, and Basha but there’s still us and Casteel which are pretty good programs, as well.”

That competition has bred success within the five CUSD schools – all of whom wear targets on their backs when playing playing non-region games, even against nearby schools with familiar players and staffs.

“Iron sharpens iron,” McDonald said of the Premiere Region competition. “Really good players sharpen other players, and they build each other up. I think that’s what’s happening with high school football in this area. It’s highly competitive, and you have administrators who care about athletics which is huge…they want to be the best at everything. You’ve got all these programs just a crow’s fly away from each other, just battling one another week after week.” 

The small fraternity which makes up the Premiere Region, understands its place, the competition, and their elevated status not only in the fast-growing Southeast Valley east of Chandler, but around the entire state of Arizona.

 “This is the place you want to be,” Ortiz said. “I uprooted my life of 36 years in the west Valley to move out here to be a part of this.” 

Buckle up Premiere Region opponents.