One of the first things Cave Creek Cactus Shadows football coach Chad DeGrenier told his players upon being named coach in 2004 is that they’d play in the state championship game in three years.
He may as well have told them they’d go to Mars, too.
The Falcons’ program was on life support. Cactus Shadows hadn’t had a winning season since 1999. There were only four seniors on the team. Morale couldn’t have been any lower.
“There was no school pride in the football team,” said quarterback Phillip Aholt, a sophomore in ‘04. “Nobody worked over the summer. You just kind of showed up and played.”
So what prompted DeGrenier to make such an outlandish promise?
“It wasn’t a situation where I was trying to be arrogant and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to do this,’ “ DeGrenier said. “It was more because the kids were so down I was trying to create some excitement, for them to think, ‘Hey, this guy believes in us.’ “
But did DeGrenier believe it?
“I did,” he said. “I knew if we worked hard we’d have a chance.”
Three years have passed. Cactus Shadows is 8-0 and ranked No. 1 in the state in 4A Division II. If form holds, the Falcons will play in the state title game Dec. 2 at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Change didn’t come swiftly to Cactus Shadows. The Falcons — who started 16 sophomores — were 0-10 in DeGrenier’s first year as coach and allowed a whopping 52.5 points per game.
“Those Friday nights were hard,” Aholt said. “I remember that being the shortest season but it felt like the longest season.”
DeGrenier might have gone mad if not for the positive encouragement he received every day from his father, Jack, who coached DeGrenier in high school and is now an assistant coach with the Falcons.
“He kept me sane,” DeGrenier said. “He kept telling me, ‘You’re doing things right.’ “
There were signs of progress that first year. DeGrenier implemented a passing attack that featured three wide receivers on nearly every play, and the Falcons averaged 27 points per game over the last five games.
“Even when we were 0-10 people still enjoyed watching us because they knew we were going to score points,” DeGrenier said.
The offense is a hybrid of two systems. DeGrenier uses the spread offense favored by Washington State, where he was a backup to Ryan Leaf from 1993-96, and the short passing game that’s the staple of the Arena Football League. (DeGrenier played for the Arizona Rattlers from 1998-2002).
“You just really need a guy who can throw a five- to 10-yard route,” DeGrenier said. “You don’t need a huge arm.”
Cactus Shadows was 5-6 in 2005 — it lost in the postseason to Queen Creek — but has outscored opponents 331-58 this year. Aholt has completed 107 of 189 passes for 1,790 yards, with 27 touchdowns and three interceptions. Wide receiver Kyle Watkins has caught 45 passes for 1,051 yards and 17 touchdowns.
“Teams aren’t used to what we do so you definitely have an advantage,” DeGrenier said. “It’s just like when we prepare for teams, and they use the wing-T (offense). I’m not a wing-T fan, but it’s certainly hard to defend.”
Cactus Shadows will move up to 4A Division I next season and play tougher foes such as Scottsdale Chaparral and Scottsdale Saguaro.
Aholt will have moved on — he’s a senior this season — but he doesn’t believe DeGrenier and the Falcons will take a step backward. “I always knew he was building a dynasty here,” Aholt said. “It’s finally paying off.”