There are a handful of states in the heartland of this country that are universally recognized for their rich heritage in the game of football. Their high school programs are prime hunting ground for college recruiters. Oklahoma is one of those states.
And this season, Chaparral High School in Scottsdale is getting an up-close look at the Oklahoma brand of football as it is applied to that school’s program.
The Firebirds’ new head coach, Brent Barnes, comes to Arizona after spending the last three years as head coach of the Norman North High School football program, where he compiled a 26-9 record.
His challenge in Scottsdale is to bring some stability to a program that now has had four head coaches in the last seven years, and return the program to the lofty heights it enjoyed when Charlie Ragle took over the program in 2007 and led it to three state championships. But after he left following the 2011 season, no coach has remained for more than two seasons. Ragle moved on to the college ranks, serving five seasons as an assistant at University of Arizona and now on staff at California.
When Ragle left Chaparral, his long-time assistant, David Huffine, took over the reins and lasted two years before the program was turned over to Conrad Hamilton, who spent eight years at the school and was the defensive coordinator when tapped to take over for Huffine. That also lasted two seasons before moving on to Thomas Lewis, who compiled a 12-11 record in his two-year tenure. That was a considerable fall-off from what Hamilton had accomplished, leading the program to back-to-back seasons of nine wins.
Barnes’ first team goes into his inaugural season absent from the list of top-10 teams listed in the azcentral sports preseason rankings. That lack of respect is something that has to grind on a fan base that still remembers the glory days when the Firebirds ruled the roost.
On the surface, it’s easy to see why Chaparral isn’t included on the list. The Birds finished the last two seasons under Thomas Lewis with 5-6 and 7-5 (last season) records and haven’t made it past the second round of the state playoffs the last three years. They also have a new head coach who doesn’t have a track record in this state.
And, the biggest hurdle: they’ve moved up from 5A to 6A this season.
But if you dig down under the surface, there’s reason for Chaparral fans to hold out hope this season. At the top of that list is arguably the state’s best quarterback, Jack Miller.
The junior just accepted a scholarship offer from Ohio State. That offer was made when he was just 14 years old, made personally by head coach Urban Meyer. That should say everything about his ability and his potential the next couple of years.
A 4-star prospect, Miller is ranked in the 247Sports composite as the No. 1 quarterback in the Class of 2020.
He spent his freshman year at Scottsdale Christian Academy, where the dual-threat QB broke a couple of state records, throwing for 3,653 yards and 53 touchdowns, and rushing for another 1,200 yards. He missed the first two games of his sophomore season after transferring to Chaparral while waiting on the results of a transfer hardship appeal to the Arizona Interscholastic Association, but eventually got back on the field and led the Firebirds to a 7-4 record, winning four of the last five games.
But now he’s poised for a break-out season, without the distractions that come with the college recruiting circus.
And he’ll have plenty of help. Miller will be working behind an experienced line, with receivers he can count on and running backs that can provide the one-two punch. Chaparral will have three solid backs – Darvon Hubbard, Marqui Johnson, and Josh Edwards – to help carry the load, even though the spread offense Barnes has installed will rely heavily on the pass.
Barnes’ offensive philosophy helped him turn around the Norman North program in just his second season, when that 2016 team went 12-1 and averaged 53 points a game. And the system Miller is running at Chaparral this season is similar to what he ran at SCA when he blew up the record books.
That system will get its first big test early when the Firebirds open Friday night against perennial power, Hamilton High. The Huskies, too, will be under the direction of a new coach, also from out-of-state. Mike Zdebski, a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches’ Association Hall of Fame, was hired away from the Walled Lake Western High School in the Greater Detroit Area in January.
But Hamilton, a Chandler school with a rich tradition of nationally-ranked teams, owns seven state titles from the last 14 years. So it’s understandable that the Huskies would get more preseason respect. They will come into the game ranked No. 5 in the 6A conference.
Chaparral, the new kid on the block, will quickly find out if it belongs in 6A.
And to make the test a little tougher, Friday’s game will be at Hamilton.