Open Season: The Rebuttal
Twitter blew up when Sports Illustrated’s John Walters dropped a scathing story on the landscape of Arizona high school football. With the state allowing open enrollment since 1994, the daily cover being named “Open Season” seems fitting, right?
I certainly have mixed feelings about the “cutthroat” enterprise piece, like many others that read it in its entirety.
My first take is that Chaparral is going to be in deep trouble if the AIA finds these reports to be real. Don’t be surprised to see them get the Bellevue High treatment.
Open enrollment has allowed several athletes an opportunity to attend suburban public schools such as Chaparral, Saguaro, Chandler, Hamilton, Basha, etc.
Why would the schools from rich neighborhoods have the best football programs? Are the best athletes growing up in rich neighborhoods now?
No. Schools with higher booster club budgets use their resources to invest in better locker rooms, weight rooms, stadiums, fields, etc for their programs, as outlined in the article.
The same way lots of four and five-star high school athletes are attracted to the SEC schools with state of the art facilities, 8th graders and their parents are attracted to the same when picking a high school.
But what happened to bringing back a state title to the neighborhood that you, your parents, your grandparents and beyond grew up in? Like what Spencer James wanted to do for Crenshaw in All-American?
According to the article, only six of the current 33 6A high schools existed in 1972. If you ask a random kid in the valley whether their parents went to the same high school, there’s a good chance they say no. Their parents might not have even grown up here, and their grandparents almost certainly didn’t.
For context, in my hometown (Bellevue, WA), Interlake High School (where I graduated from) is the newest school in the district. It was built in 1967. Most of the big schools in that area were founded before 1950.
High school communities with long traditions we see in other states are a rare find in the valley.
Winning with neighborhood kids isn’t a thing here for most coaches the same way that bringing a state title back to your neighborhood isn’t a thing here for most athletes.
In addition to players leaving their neighborhood before beginning high school, there are many that stay and then change their mind and transfer.
Walters brings up a very controversial case that other media does not talk about at all. What happened with Cesar Chavez wide receiver Kezion Dia-Johnson transferring to Desert Edge?
Kez is one of the guys that I film and take photos for frequently and have a personal relationship with, so the news broke to me before most people (besides Chavez and Desert Edge coaches) knew about it.
It was late January, the very beginning of the new and growing 7on7 football circuit. I’ve traveled to Bullhead City with Sweetfeet Elite for a Pylon tournament.
While Sweetfeet is in between games at Anderson Auto Group Fieldhouse, I’m just chilling off to the side, talking to some of the players.
I get a text from Kez asking for photos from one of his games in the tournament, and then I spot him warming up for his game with AZ Dolphins Aqua, a team that includes Chaparral three-star Plas Johnson, Centennial freshman QB Kainan Manna (who was still in 8th grade at the time), and multiple top 2024 skill position players.
We caught up a little bit before he had to play his next game against Sweetfeet and the idea of transferring never came up.
Fast forward to about two weeks later, I see Kez again at a Redzone Elite 7v7 tournament at Bell Bank Park in Mesa, and he tells me he’s decided to transfer to Desert Edge.
I was a little surprised, especially considering he was expected to be the focal point of the Chavez offense alongside NAU commit Myseth Currie and the Champions had a good shot at a playoff run with the two of them.
I knew he’d probably be the WR1 at Desert Edge, but the Scorpions are pretty deep at the position and he might not see the same volume of targets as he would at Chavez.
So, I asked him why. I keep most of my conversations with athletes private because I’m their cameraman and not a reporter, but he did share some frustrations with his lack of recruitment.
Fast forward to early May, it’s the start of Scorpion spring ball and Kez receives his first Division I offer from UNLV.
Three days later, Oregon State became the first Power 5 team to offer the three-star junior and then Arizona, Oregon, Nebraska, and Washington State followed suit later in the month.
Well, what is the controversy here?
I was already aware of the situation before Walters published the story as I had spoken with Coach Chipley as well as the Carter twins in private about it earlier in the summer.
As much as I’d like to pick a side in the situation, it’s hard to put either party at fault.
Coach Chipley has several reasons to believe that Kez was yet another one of his players to be poached from Laveen.
We all saw the evidence of the DMs between Hamilton DC Tim Dougherty and Chavez defensive lineman Zachary Cook, showing obvious recruitment. Who am I to say Chipley's thoughts aren't valid in this situation too?
At the same time, it’s hard to accuse the Carter twins of recruiting him when it came out of Kez’s own mouth that they have a great track record of getting players college offers and he had five of them before he even made his Desert Edge debut last Friday at Saguaro.
With players being heavily recruited by colleges, their big presence on Twitter, and the culture that the twins have built in just two years at helm, Desert Edge will attract transfers without Mark or Marcus having any contact with the player.
Blasting music on boom boxes at away games, letting players be themselves (which Garrie Ester outlined in a different story), and hopping in practice drills with players doesn’t hurt either.
From personal experience, I can tell you that multiple players have told me in private that they are either thinking about transferring to Desert Edge or have already made the decision that they will.
Regardless of the situation, I don’t think I’m alone in having tremendous respect for the coaching jobs of Chipley and the Carter twins.
Chipley turned a spring roster with only 12 players into a 5-5 team in 2021. The Carter twins are building something special on the WestsiDE with one of the best 2024 and 2025 classes in the state.
But how did this era of mass-transferring come to be? The NCAA now allows immediate eligibility for transfer athletes and it seems that the transfer portal has trickled down to the prep level.
The two most common types of transfers we’re seeing in this day and age are a star player on a weaker team transferring to a top school or a player that doesn’t get much playing time on a top team transferring elsewhere.
While I believe some cases are athletes and parents avoiding adversity and being unwilling to stick it out at their current school, that is not always true.
Sometimes it’s okay to be selfish and for the athlete and parents to decide what’s best for the athlete’s future. It’s not always simply about football and/or basketball when a student wants to transfer elsewhere.
When I was a freshman in high school, at a private school called The Overlake School, I was miserable. My entire life was consumed by homework. Playing two sports made it even harder.
No matter how many hours I put into school work, I couldn’t get my grades anywhere near where I wanted them to be. It seemed like every other weekend 13-year-old me was put to tears because of the difficulty of school.
To make matters worse, there were very few classmates around me that were struggling in the same way. Of those 80 or so people in my freshman class, almost a dozen went to Ivy League schools, 10 went to USC, you guys know what I’m getting at.
I was the elephant in the room. School had never been an issue for me up until this point. After a second semester with an underwhelming GPA, my parents sat down with me and asked if I wanted to stay. I answered no.
Fast forward three months to September of 2014, I’m in my first semester at Interlake. It feels like a boulder has been taken off my shoulders. School still challenged me, but I finally felt like I wasn’t overwhelmed by school. Hard work paid off with much better grades.
Socially, I made new friends rather quickly and finally had time outside of school to hang out with them. But athletically, some new challenges arrived my sophomore year.
Because school starts much later in Washington, my first day of school was the day after Labor Day, but tryouts for golf and other fall sports were two weeks prior in mid-August.
To that point, Interlake had won the past four state 2A & 3A state titles (Washington only goes up to 4A).
The coaches were impressed with my game and I ended up making the team quite comfortably. Well, school starts and the AD calls me out of class on the first day to meet with me in her office.
This is my first time meeting her, so I’m wondering what’s going on. She informs me that the WIAA told her that I will be ineligible to participate in the postseason due to transfer rules. For golf. Sitting out the postseason for GOLF.
Why is this relevant to transfer students in Arizona?
Well, not every athlete that transfers is solely doing it for sports and sitting out for half the season is just as frustrating for Arizona high school athletes as it was for me to miss the postseason.
I understand the rule was put in place to discourage athletes from transferring for athletic reasons, but the reality is, if they are still willing to sit out half the season because they feel the move could have that much of a positive impact on their future, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?
If ring chasing is what the AIA is worried about, let the player play the entire regular season and make them sit out for the postseason.
Let them apply for a waiver if there’s clear evidence they aren’t ring chasing. They’d be surprised with how many players care about more than just state titles.
Put yourself in the shoes of the athlete. As a black kid growing up in the suburbs, I could only wish that my school brought in other black athletes the same way the Chaparral, Saguaro, and others do.
My graduating class had 391 students. 5 of us, including me, were black. Bringing in 5-10 black athletes from Renton, Kent, or South Seattle could have brought in much-needed diversity and had a hugely positive impact on my high school experience the same way it does in the valley.
Later in the article, Walters talks more about the other transfers out of Cesar Chavez.
Yes, the school has had numerous transfers, which Alyssa Gomez wrote about in a different story, but his reasoning behind it is simply inaccurate.
“Chavez is located in Laveen, just eight miles southwest of downtown Phoenix. Directly east is South Phoenix, the most impoverished urban area in Arizona and home to many Chavez students.”
Laveen isn’t any closer to South Phoenix than Tempe or Ahwatukee, and I don’t hear anyone talk about those areas in that way. But the excerpt gets worse:
“Among 6A programs, Chavez may have the most impoverished student body in metropolitan Phoenix.”
Okay. Saying they “may” or “might” have the most impoverished student body is irresponsible as a journalist. This is something that is literally verifiable by researching factual information, such as the percentage of students on free or reduced lunch.
82% of Chavez students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, the Phoenix Union district average is 87%, according to High-Schools.com.
The average home price in Laveen, AZ in August 2022 was $465,000, according to Redfin.
So no, they don’t have the most impoverished student body in metropolitan Phoenix. Not even close. But it keeps going:
“The school’s enrollment is 87% Hispanic or Black.”
What does that have to do with poverty? The school has a 97% minority enrollment while the district as a whole has a 95% minority enrollment. So this implication that higher minority enrollment = more poverty is simply not true.
At the end of the day, I think too many people are worried about the decisions black athletes are making to better their futures.
This is also one of several reasons why more diversity is needed in sports journalism. If I’m in that newsroom, there is no way I encourage a writer to run that excerpt of the story.
While it was cool to read a story that somewhat understands open enrollment in Arizona, it didn't really tell us much more than what we already know..
If players want to go out into the suburbs and play for these powerhouses, what’s the issue? Is it really any different than private schools in other states like Mater Dei and Bishop Gorman offering athletic scholarships for high school?
Hell, former Eastside Catholic four-star TE DJ Rogers lived down the street from me in Bellevue but the school gave him a full scholarship and transportation to the private school on the other side of Lake Sammamish.
If you’re in the shoes of their parents, are you really going to turn down an opportunity for your son to play at a highly-ranked school like Basha that will also prepare your son more academically for college than your neighborhood school?
We just wrapped up Week 6. Most transfers made their season debuts on Friday and the remainder make theirs this week. It’s time we look forward to great football and root for our valley players to keep getting recruited by big-time schools instead of worrying about their commutes to school every day.
Will there be any fundamental changes to open enrollment in Arizona? Probably not. Should there be? That’s the decision I’m torn on.
Even limiting open enrollment to the district that the student resides in could help limit this cross-county commuting to school that so many complain about, but that creates a new set of issues and conflict.
There’s no perfect blueprint to how Arizona high school football needs to make adjustments, but each of the last three seasons has been increasingly entertaining and the Sonoran Desert is becoming a hotbed for future college football talent.