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Arete Prep Matthew McClelland has established himself as one of the top players in the 2A Conference. Now, he aims to take the Chargers to the playoffs for the first time since the football program was reborn.

When Matthew McClelland joined the football team at Arete Preparatory Academy in 2018, a motto was instilled within the program: change the culture.

Two years before his arrival, the Chargers cancelled their season after not having enough players to compete. In response, coach Cord Smith was hired to, in his words, “resurrect” Arete Prep.

Smith has done just that, and by extension, aided the goal of McClelland and his fellow veterans.

Now in year five of Smith’s tenure, the roster is at 24 players, compared to less than 15 in 2016. The program has played in Division 2A since 2020 after moving up from 1A. Most of all,

confidence is permeating within Arete Prep as it seeks a return to the playoffs following a two-win season.

“It takes a full team,” McClelland, a senior quarterback and safety, said. “Everybody working together, especially going from 1A to 2A. More guys on the field. The teamwork aspect has definitely been a lot more.”

Smith believes that 2021 can be the year the Chargers prove themselves in 2A. Earning postseason bids in its final two years in 1A, Arete Prep wants to showcase an ability to compete in 11-man football, according to the coach.

Winning their first game by 26 points and losing to Sequoia Pathway Academy by two, the Chargers have larger aspirations than making the playoffs. They want to host a postseason game, reserved for the top eight squads in the division.

A key step towards reaching that point is the development of the roster. Arete Prep has 11 players taking the gridiron for the first time this fall, a process that allows Smith to see the week-by-week growth of his athletes.

Nathan Warm is one such player. A right tackle and defensive end, Warm joined the football program to experience the gridiron before heading off to college and get stronger ahead of basketball season. Now, he is focused on motivating the players who follow in his footsteps.

“Leave a legacy,” Warm said. “Motivate the other players to give it their all every day. Giving it my all every day and other people seeing that as an example.”

For senior running back and linebacker Jack Bellomy, he can sense a new energy flowing through the Chargers. The running back and linebacker said that the move to 2A has encouraged increased competitiveness and a more serious attitude towards success on the field.

Arete Prep misses defending division champion Santa Cruz Valley in the regular season but faces 2020 semifinalist St. Johns High School. As the Chargers continue to grow through the campaign, one player has proven his ability to lead the squad to the end zone.

Through two contests, McClelland leads 2A in total yards (677) and touchdowns (nine). With 431 rushing yards — and eight rushing scores — and 246 passing yards, the dual threat signal-caller is already on track to be one of the top players in the division.

As a 130-pound freshman, McClelland tossed for 2,559 yards and 31 touchdowns, but racked up only 85 on the ground. Within months, Smith saw improvement when his quarterback took off a run during preseason. This marked the first sight of McClelland’s transition into a dual-threat signal caller, as he threw for 2,413 yards and 23 touchdowns and ran for 1,200 yards and 18 scores in 2019.

During a six-game season in 2020, he continued to balance his skills in the air and on the ground by throwing for 1,567 yards and rushing for 826 with 22 combined scores.

“He’s definitely a dual-threat athlete,” Smith said. “It’s just been neat to see him grow. We’ve run the same system the whole time he’s been here. He can run it. In some games, I have him call his own plays. And in practice, he knows every position and everything everybody’s supposed to do.”

“He’s a special talent.”

McClelland hopes to play football in college and has received offers from St. Olaf College and Concordia University in Minnesota. Meanwhile, Bellomy traveled this summer to visit Division III programs in Oregon.

The seniors, as well as their 22 teammates, are bought into the process Smith instituted in Gilbert. With just a few months remaining in their high school careers, the program is in a different place than when they started.

Yet while things have changed, the fundamentals still remain. Tenets such as tackling, kickoff returns and extra points are emphasized in practice. These skills are the ones that could make a difference in Arete Prep’s return to playoff football in the East Valley.

“(Special teams) coach (Ricky) Alvarez always says, ‘Focus on the little things,’” Bellomy said. “I think that if we can get the little things right, then the big things will come with it.”

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