Higley High School football coach Eddy Zubey has established a strong family culture within his football program during his nine-year tenure.
As more players have bought into that culture every year, it’s resulted in wins.
Zubey has led the Knights to the playoffs each year since 2013, including back-to-back appearances in the 4A semifinals in 2016-17 before the Knights moved up to 5A in 2018.
The program’s success has made Higley High one of the most popular transfer destinations for East Valley high school football players in the past two seasons.
“Once these guys get here, the guys that are currently here embrace them and allow them the opportunity to flourish as a football player,” Zubey said, adding:
“As a program, we always say we are going to play the best players whether you’re here for one year or four years. If you’re the best guy, we put you on the field. I think knowing that they actually have a legitimate chance to get out there and play, intrigues a lot of people.”
Last season, Higley welcomed 11 new transfers into the program. This season, there were nine.
Zach Kriens, Peyton Hill, Kope Vahai, AJ Laux, Handrick Kupu, Nik Rieck, Colin Kraemer, Jaden Wingo and Quinton Crosby all transferred in during the offseason. Each player has sat out the required five games by the AIA, but now they’re eager to make an impact.
Kriens, who transferred from Skyline, will work his way in with the rest of Higley’s linebackers along with Kope Vahai, a junior transfer from Mesa.
Kriens has spent the last five weeks on the second team defense in practice, doing what he can to help his team get better. But now that he is eligible, his mindset has completely changed.
“If you watch practice, I’m out there grinding getting the first team better, the second team better and myself better, honestly,” Kriens said. “I’m already tapped in for next week. I’m ready.”
Senior athlete Isaiah Eastman was one of the 11 players who transferred over to Higley in 2018 from Desert Ridge.
A natural slot receiver, he has played all over the field for the Higley offense this season.
He’s gotten most of his playing time at running back, rushing for 833 yards and 9 touchdowns. He’s also caught 15 passes for 187 yards and another touchdown.
Eastman’s production was one of the bright spots for the Higley offense in the Knights first two games of the season, which they both lost to Bishop Alemany (Calif.) and Horizon. Despite a bruised tailbone, which has limited him in practice since the first week, Eastman has remained a cerebral part of the offense.
“I love my team and I love the game of football,” Eastman said. “It fuels my drive and I just have so much fun playing it. I just want to get out there and play for my boys every Friday night, that’s what keeps me going.”
Eastman will return to the slot receiver position once senior running back Peyton Hill becomes eligible to play against Maricopa on Sept. 27.
Hill, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound transfer from Perry, is a bruising back with the ability to break away in the open field. Eastman and the rest of the Higley team knows the type of talent Hill brings.
“I think Peyton is going to be a big add to the offense,” Eastman said. “He is going to make us that much more explosive, fast-paced and a better offense overall. I’m excited to go back to slot and see what he can do at running back.”
Despite dropping their first two games of the season, the Knights have clicked ever since. A team meeting seems to have been the turning point for all players to come together, especially on offense.
Higley’s young offensive line has gelled at the right time and has started creating clean pockets for junior quarterback Kai Millner.
Millner, a 6-foot-2, 180-pound junior with scholarship offers to Arizona, Arizona State, Michigan State, Iowa State and Northern Arizona, has seen a dramatic uptick in production over the course of the last two weeks.
The junior had a solid outing against Bishop Alemany completing 21 of his 29 pass attempts for 181 yards and a touchdown. Against Horizon, however, he went 5-of-17 for 38 yards and a touchdown.
Since then, however, something in Millner and the Higley offense clicked.
Against Marana Mountain View, Rainier Beach (Seattle, Wash.) and Millennium, Millner passed for a total of 784 yards and 6 touchdowns, leading Higley’s offense to average more than 43 points per game the last three weeks.
“These past games we’re playing with energy and doing all of the things we need to do to,” Millner said. “We’ve really come together and created that bond and have started playing for each other. I’m really excited.”
Millner and the rest of the team expect to continue firing on all cylinders as they progress throughout the season, especially given the firepower they gain on both sides of the ball when the transfers become eligible.
The Knights have turned into a confident group, and they realize they are on the right path to remain one of the top teams in the 5A Conference.
“We are going to be super explosive,” Eastman said. “You’re going to see a lot more energy.
“Honestly, it’s going to a scary sight to see.”