Zone Read: Welcome to Fall, Let’s Ball

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(Up) Front and Center

“Zone Read” didn’t have to wait until kickoff last Friday night to come away impressed with the Liberty Lions.

There are high school teams who take the field hoping to win, and there are teams who take the field knowing they’re going to win.

Liberty fits the latter in every way, shape, and form.

There are no visual weaknesses. Head coach Colin Thomas and his staff excel in the details – it’s evident in all three phases. Liberty also has the swag of a team who knows they can dominate anyone.

After dispatching Saguaro on their home field behind a stingy defense and an extremely efficient Navi Bruzon, the Lions next business trip to the east Valley takes them Chandler for a matchup against 5-0 Basha, a team they took out 38-20 in the first round of Open Division Playoffs last year.

Different year, different team but the Bears know full well what to expect this weekend, as well as the lessons learned from 2021, particularly at the line of scrimmage. Basha gave up 10 sacks, including 4.5 to Oregon commit My’Keil Gardner in the lopsided loss.

“They have more of a business-minded approach,” Basha head coach Chris McDonald explained to the “Zone Read” of his more experienced offensive line. “I think we have a pretty good o-line this year. I don’t want to say we had a bad o-line last year…I just think we’re more mature [this year]. I feel like part of our struggles last year against Liberty can fall on me. I abandoned the run game too early. That’s one thing I learned.”

McDonald believes his returning players learned, the hard way, how to handle adversity and “the rollercoaster ride of the football game” as he put it last December. It showed on September 3rd in southern California when Basha erased a 21-0 first quarter deficit to take down national power Los Alamitos 33-28 which has ignited their perfect start thus far. 

While the Bears haven’t faced the stiffest of competition, blowout wins over Mountain Ridge, Tucson Salpointe Catholic, Mesa Mountain View, and Cactus all served as nice appetizers to this week’s main course.

McDonald didn’t downplay the importance of Friday and, quite honesty, why would he?

“These kids have been looking forward to this game, let me just put it like that,” he said with conviction. “They’re not disrespectful towards Liberty at all because, let’s be honest, Liberty kicked our butts the last time we played, and it left a really bad taste in our mouth.”

McDonald continued.

“I don’t want to say we had this game circled on a calendar because we don’t even have a calendar up. We didn’t circle anything, ‘ya know (laughing)? I think they’re embracing the challenge because they know what type of football team Liberty is.”  

Don’t paint me shocked if we see the trilogy between these two 6A heavyweights in the next two months.

Left Lane, Hammer Down

Maybe you could say the third time (well, sort of) was the charm for Desert Mountain head coach Conrad Hamilton.

After getting his head coaching feet wet at North Canyon, serving as head coach, and later associate head coach, at Chaparral, one of the top defensive minds in Arizona landed back in north Scottsdale, just eight miles east down Shea Boulevard with the Wolves.

Hamilton’s rapid re-build has nothing been nothing short of astounding – increasing DMHS’s win total from three in 2019 (his first year), to four in 2020, to 12 last fall, including a 5A Northeast Region Championship and narrow loss to eventual state champion Horizon in the playoff semi-finals. 

Fast forward to 2022 and the Wolves are rolling again, sitting at a perfect 5-0 entering their showdown with north Scottsdale neighbor Notre Dame Prep this week. DM, with a shrinking enrollment of around 1900, has already knocked off a pair of 6A schools, Chaparral, coincidentally, and Mesa Mountain View, despite a varsity roster which sits at just 43 players. 

However, it was his time in Tempe which he believes groomed him for the consistent success he’s established at Desert Mountain.

“I think my biggest growth spurt [in coaching] was going to Arizona State, being Todd Graham’s senior defensive analyst,” Hamilton said in a recent interview with the “Zone Read.” ”

His time at ASU seemed to revitalize his passion for leading a high school program both on and, more importantly, off the field.

“I really, really wanted to be a head coach, not just to say I run my own program,”  he explained. “I want to touch kids’ lives. I want to impact people on a daily basis, not just from a football standpoint, but as a leader, as a mentor at the school.

“I learned a lot about leadership and mentorship under Todd Graham.”

From the jump their personalities matched. To play for both requires discipline, commitment, and selflessness both on the field, as well as in the classroom. In short, putting the team before yourself as an individual. 

Their styles aren’t for everyone but Hamilton credits Graham’s model at ASU as a blueprint of sorts when taking over at Desert Mountain.

“I couldn’t wait to coach again because I thought that [structure] was something that was missing to add to my understanding of the X’s and O’s, I’m pretty good at that,” the former New York Giants and Atlanta Falcons cornerback said. “Then hiring the right guys here to help put this [program] all together. It just seemed like a good fit.”

Hamilton’s military background (his dad served in the Air Force for 30 years), blue collar approach could be viewed as an odd pairing in the mostly affluent north Scottsdale and Fountain Hills communities which feed into Desert Mountain, but he knew Desert Mountain needed him, as much as he needed them.

“Most high schoolers, growing boys, they need structure, they need discipline,” he continued. “They needed a coach here, whether it was me or somebody else, to have a vision for the program holistically…there were pieces here. They were just missing tying a lot of things together, I think.”

As mentioned, Desert Mountain’s small roster presents several in-season limitations for Hamilton and his staff. The Wolves don’t have the numbers for a junior varsity team so, according to Hamilton, the physicality of game prep practices are limited to preserve health throughout the grind of the regular season. DM also pulls up younger players in the program to add depth to their special teams. Every aspect of the week is examined with great detail to ensure the best possible outcome on Friday nights.

Hamilton hasn’t had much to complain about through the first half of the regular season.

“We’re worried about us at the end of the day,” he said. “We feel like we have a good team. Our guys are really focused this year.”

The focus was all on Hamilton after the Wolves back-to-back wins over Chaparral and Mountain View.

“That was big to have fun with the boys,” Hamilton said when asked about his impromptu post-game dance party. “Coach still kind of has that young, youthful spirit. Anything to make those guys smile. We bark at them a lot during the week. We have high expectations for them on the field and off.”

Somewhere Todd Graham has to be smiling.

A Trojan(‘s) Horse

Desert Mountain isn’t the only north Valley program doing more with less, in terms of sheer numbers.

4-1 Paradise Valley has already doubled their 2021 win total, despite only carrying 33 varsity players.

Thankfully for long-time PV head coach Greg Davis, one of those 33 is starting quarterback Jaiden McDaniel, who missed almost his entire junior season after suffering a broken collarbone.

A four-year player in the Trojans’ program, the 6-foot, 195-pounder is one of the main reasons why PV is averaging 41 points per game and, outside of a 34-32 season-opening loss at 4-1 Central, have rolled through their last four opponents entering their bye week.

McDaniel’s success doesn’t come as a complete surprise, considering the commitment he made last summer to help ensure his final season was a special one.

“[Last] off-season I got straight to work, I got a personal trainer,” McDaniel said to the “Zone Read.”  “I got a quarterback coach who helped me a lot. I ate the right foods. I leaned down, and cut down on my weight I took the time and really learned the game of football better than I could ever know.”

Davis, who has coached a host of skilled quarterbacks at Paradise Valley, most notably Daniel Bridge-Gadd and Ben Finley, is happy to see all of McDaniels’ preparation pay off. He’s completing nearly 70% of his passes and has already thrown 16 touchdowns, against just three interceptions in 104 attempts. He’s also ran for 163 yards and four scores. 

“Jaiden is a special player because of his athletic ability and his desire to want to learn the game,” Davis explained to the “Zone Read.” “He has really started to blossom because he has really taken it personal to learn the ‘why’s’ in our passing game.”

McDaniels admits the game has slowed down as his football IQ has sped up. With more experience, comes more confidence, and more opportunities for team success, something he envisioned last summer as PV transitioned out of the tricky 5A Northeast Valley Region and into the far more forgiving 5A Central Valley.

“I think during camp we all knew what kind of team we were,” McDaniel noted. “We knew what guys we had and what guys were coming back like Quincy Wright, who was also coming off a [broken] collarbone, and Jaden Ralston who was coming off one, as well. So we knew what kind of team we would most definitely be down the road.”

The Trojans return to action October 14th as they open region play at Kellis.