The Chandler High School football program was in unfamiliar territory after winning its third straight state title last season.
Shaun Aguano, who led the Wolves to four state championships during his tenure as head coach from 2011-18, resigned in January to become the new running backs coach at Arizona State University. Chandler principal Larry Rother and athletic director Jim Culver began a national search for the Wolves’ new coach, but ultimately decided to hire within.
Rick Garretson, who had spent the last nine seasons with the program in various roles, was announced as the head coach on Jan. 29.
“It’s been very easy,” Garretson said. “We have the same coaching staff which makes things simple. To have those guys doing the same things they did under Shaun, it’s a welcoming fit.”
As many other programs did in late April and into May, Chandler took part in a spring football showcase to attract college coaches. The Wolves traveled up to Scottsdale to take part in the event with Saguaro and Higley high schools on May 9. More than 75 college coaches were in attendance.
It was one of the first on-field looks at what the Wolves have to offer in 2019. Along with a new head coach, Chandler will have several new starters on both offense and defense. One of the most important transitions will take place at the quarterback position, as junior Mikey Keene , who picked up his first offer from Northern Arizona University on June 8, takes over for three-year starter and BYU signee Jacob Conover.
“Mikey Keene is a very accurate thrower, like all Chandler quarterbacks have been,” Garretson said. “He’s dynamic in the sense of his creativity in the pocket. Our quarterbacks are really in control of everything in this offense with hot-reads.
“He’s going to be outstanding.”
Keene excelled on Chandler’s freshman team in 2017. He threw for 2,309 yards, 32 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. He sat behind Conover his sophomore season on varsity, but did complete 9 passes for 122 yards and 2 touchdowns in limited action.
At the Saguaro showcase, Keene showed his ability to step in to a leadership role in place of Conover. He transitioned through each of his reads to locate an open receiver. Though at times Chandler’s stout secondary got the best of him, he showed poise with several major division I college coaches looking on.
“We are just worried about ourselves right now,” Keene said. “We know that if we just continue to do our jobs and follow our own process then offers will start to come.
“For me personally, I’m just going to do what I have to do in order to help my team win and enjoy this experience.”
Keene will benefit from a plethora of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Running back Jaheim Brown-Taylor returns for his senior season after rushing for 755 yards and 8 touchdowns as the backup for 2,000-yard rusher and Cal signee DeCarlos Brooks.
Senior Nehemiah Magalei will anchor the offensive line, while sophomores Quaron Adams and Kyion Grayes will add more big-play ability. Eli Sanders, who transferred from Mountain Pointe and will miss the first five games of the season, will add even more depth to Chandler’s backfield.
On defense, senior Malik Reed will lead the way along with fellow seniors Tate Romney and Gunner Maldonado, as well as junior Brandon Buckner to form one of the most talented defenses in the state.
As a junior at outside linebacker, Reed recorded 42 tackles and 8.5 sacks. He made the switch to weak inside backer this season.
He already has several power-5 scholarship offers, including UCLA, Nebraska and Wisconsin.
“I feel like (inside) is my natural position,” Reed said. “I picked it up so fast. I’ve been doing well getting to the ball and I feel like my pass coverage has gotten a lot better.”
Reed and Romney both bring speed and an aggressive play style to Chandler’s front-seven, which also includes Buckner at defensive end. The talent across both sides of the ball for Chandler has the Wolves poised to make yet another run at the championship.
“(Malik) is a leader,” Garretson said. “He’s a guy that can really do it all for us. Having him and Tate Romney, I don’t know of two better combo high school linebackers in the country than those two guys.
“Combine them with what we have up front, it’s going to be fun.”