As Phoenix continues to grow, new schools are becoming commonplace to support the swelling populations in the Valley’s outlying suburbs. It’s often referred to as “the urban sprawl,” and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon (more on that later).
Its influence has been far-reaching, forcing players, parents, coaches, even the AIA to pivot on a number of fronts as each year brings change, and a bit of unknown.
In this “Zone Read,” we explore the impact, both positive and negative, these areas of growing population are having, as well as what it means (and could mean) to Arizona high school football moving forward.
Let’s Build Something Together
“You see that,” Scooter Molander said, pointing towards several acres of freshly bulldozed land with construction crews bustling around like worker ants in unison of one common goal. “That’s growth. That’s also the future of this high school.”
It was early September of 2020 when I walked with Molander at then just-christened Eastmark High School in the far southeast Valley, seconds off the Loop 202 in Mesa. The baby Firebirds, who had yet to play their first varsity game, were relatively small in both physical size, and overall numbers.
But Molander could see not only what the program was at that time but, more importantly, what it was going to be. The veteran coach had more than just a plan, he had a complete, detailed blueprint, and was banking on those new homes being the framework of his Eastmark football architecture.
Three years later Eastmark won the 3A State Championship before Molander was hired by Desert Vista this off-season.
Final: Eastmark wins the 3A state championship 41-21 over Thatcher. In just their third season and second playoff appearance, the Firebirds are champions.
Start of a dynasty in the East Valley pic.twitter.com/RTurS90zrd
— Zach Alvira (@ZachAlvira) November 27, 2022
He also saw, and noted to me at the time, the steady climb of neighboring Casteel. The Colts experienced great success in the infancy of their program, which started in 2016, and have become a steady force as they’ve climbed divisions up to the pinnacle of 6A.
Perception Isn’t Always Reality
While the sprawl has unquestionably helped young programs, you can also include the ALA schools here, it hasn’t had the same impact on others in the area.
Perry, with one of the larger enrollments in the state (3163), hasn’t had a winning season since a Purdy (Chubba) last played quarterback (2019). Higley, another school surrounded by new home communities, took its lumps in 6A before being moved back to 5A and continuing their success.
Mesa Westwood isn’t situated in the same growing community as the schools listed above, but boasts the third-largest enrollment with just over 3,500 student-athletes. The Warriors, despite their overall numbers, haven’t won more than six games in a single season since 2014.
Westwood finished 3-7 last fall, including a 60-8 loss to Hamilton, a school with a relatively similar enrollment (3900).
“I don’t believe roster size has anything to do with winning,” Desert Edge co-head coach Marcus Carter said to the “Zone Read.” “In most cases, it’s quality over quantity. There are exceptions to this. If you’re at a well-established program and you have 4,000 kids at your school, then obviously it will be different. You have more to choose from. If you’re at another school which doesn’t particularly [have] top talent, then it’s not really going to help you in my opinion.”
It’s always been about the Jimmys and the Joes, even at the high school level here in Arizona.
Basha is a case study of its own. The Bears, for many years, were overmatched among neighboring 6A heavyweights Chandler and Hamilton, but behind the patience of head coach Chris McDonald and his staff, along with an influx of talented pieces and timely transfers, reached the ultimate pinnacle in December, winning their first state championship, an Open Division one at that. Basha’s enrollment is 1100 less than Chandler, 1400 less than Hamilton.
One undisputed fact urban sprawl has created is the pollution of “neighborhood schools,” which have become, for the most part, extinct. With new programs commonly sprouting up all over the Valley, paired with the AIA’s ruling to allow open enrollment, it’s more rare than commonplace for kids to continue to play with their early youth classmates.
Last fall 6A Pinnacle had nearly as many varsity players (62) as neighboring 5A schools Paradise Valley (31), and North Canyon (43) combined. The three north Phoenix schools, all in the Paradise Valley School District, are separated by less than five miles.
Sure, these are case-by-case studies and Paradise Valley’s enrollment includes their CREST (Center for Research in Engineering, Science and Technology) school, but these types of trends aren’t as uncommon as you think.
The ballooning population has also hurt the metro Phoenix teams, particularly in the Phoenix Union District. More surrounding institutions have driven players away from their “district school” (that term essentially means nothing now with open enrollment), and into more appealing programs. Those options may not have even existed 10-15 years ago. Quite simply, transferring has become too easy and, as we’ve seen, more common over recent years.
“I believe players and parents look at the success of the program before sending their kid to a certain school,” Central head coach Chandler Hovik explained to the “Zone Read.” “If you have been a program that does not win or get kids to college, there are so many other programs that do. We have been blessed at Central to have an extremely loyal group of young men in the program. If you want kids to stay, you have to run a first class program that goes above and beyond what the ‘new/bigger’ schools are doing.”
St. Mary’s, a private school in central Phoenix, competed in the highest classification for several years. Now, the Knights are a 4A school with less than 500 total students.
Phoenix is now the 10th-largest city in the country with a metro area population of 4,717,000. In 2019, the Valley’s proper population was 4,511,000.
What’s unique is the urban sprawl in our capital city isn’t exclusive to the southeast Valley. A 2022 study listed Queen Creek (southeast), Maricopa (south), Casa Grande (south), Buckeye (southwest), and Goodyear (southwest) as five of the 15 fastest growing cities in the nation. Be ready, Anthem.
The one consistent we have seen over the past decade or so is as long as the talent, and essential coaching pieces, stay in place, the traditionally strong programs – Chandler, Hamilton, Saguaro, Highland, Liberty, etc. will continue to thrive. They will attract players from all over because distance and travel mean nothing. East Valley programs have players who live in central Phoenix, even the far south and west Valley.
So, what’s the next trend? That’s the great unknown, especially when some of the Valley’s current new schools in these outlining areas are replaced by newer ones.
Players and parents will always have options on where to plant their high school flag. Some may plant two. Others three.
We’ve learned to expect the unexpected.
Coaches aren’t naive to the metrics.
The urban sprawl giveth, and the urban sprawl can taketh away.