There are plenty of high school football teams across Arizona working during the off-season to turn things around following a disappointing 2016 season. That job centers on improving performance on the field.
But a couple of those teams have a bigger hill to climb because the challenge they face also includes cleaning up the program’s image after a season of investigations, suspensions, and penalties.
Hamilton High School in Chandler and Notre Dame Prep in north Scottsdale have been using the off-season to try to put the unfortunate events of last year behind them and focus on a new season ahead.
And, due to the fall-out from last season’s problems, both teams will be under the direction of a new head coach.
Hamilton is faced with moving on, even while a criminal investigation continues into allegations of sexual misconduct among a handful of football players. The hazing investigation began in mid-February, so it didn’t affect the program during the regular season. But, following the arrest of six players on March 29, it has cast a cloud over the school for nearly four months.
And the Huskies also are dealing with rebounding from a disappointing 7-5 season that ended with a soul-wrenching three-point loss to Perry High in a 63-60 shootout in the state quarterfinals that went into overtime.
There are plenty of teams out there that would be happy with a 7-5 record. But Hamilton is…well, Hamilton. During the previous five years the Huskies averaged over 11 wins a season.
Hamilton has often been nationally-ranked and, from 2003 through 2012, won seven state titles.
Steve Belles, who was the head coach for five of those championships, won’t be on the sidelines this season, a temporary measure the school felt was necessary while the criminal investigation continued. Belles’ assistant, Dick Baniszweski, was elevated to head coach for the 2017 season.
Baniszweski will be counting heavily on his highly-recruited quarterback, Tyler Shough, to get the program back to the top of the rankings once again. The 6’5″ senior had a break-out junior year that included more than 2,000 yards passing and 27 touchdowns, good enough to earn a scholarship to University of North Carolina – which he accepted.
While Belles appears to have been blindsided by the hazing allegations, which reportedly had been going on over a 17-month period, the damage to the Notre Dame program was self-inflicted. The head coach at the time, Mark Nolan, held a summer ‘class’ with players in helmets and full pads. The Arizona Interscholastic Association bylaws limit member schools to non-contact activities and weight training in the off-season, allowing only equipment such as footballs, kicking tees, and cleats.
After formal appeals to the AIA failed, the school was put on probation and the NDP football team was banned from post postseason play and had to cancel spring play.
The incident led to the dismissal of the school’s president and athletic director, and Nolan was removed from the football program. George Prelock, last year’s freshman coach, was moved up to varsity to fill Nolan’s position.
Unlike Hamilton, the Saints are coming off a successful season – which made the postseason ban all the more frustrating. They finished the 2016 season with an 8-2 record and won the Northeast Valley region of the 5A conference.
The Saints return most of their offensive weapons, including senior quarterback KylanWeisser and running back Cole Fisher and several veteran receivers, all operating behind an offensive line that will be pretty much intact from last season. The defense, too, is loaded with experience.
Prelock will also have another advantage working for him. Most of the players he will be working with this season have come up through his freshman program, so there should be a smooth transition at the top.
For both teams, the start of a new season means another chance to compete for a state title – but perhaps more important to each is the opportunity to put a nightmare season in the rear view mirror.