This is part two of a two-part series previewing Gilbert high school football teams ahead of the 2021 season.
The 2020 football season, played during the COVID-19 pandemic, was an anomaly for the Williams Field High School program.
It was the first time in program history the Blackhawks didn’t make the playoffs. Though, that can be attributed to the eight-team playoff brackets instituted by the AIA because of the pandemic. Normally, 16 teams enter the playoffs. Nonetheless, the Blackhawks, who went 5-3 last season, are biting at the bit to return to postseason play in 2021.
Head coach Steve Campbell, who has led the team to two state titles, said that in many ways the 2020 season has allowed him to hit the reset button on the program.
“There were a lot of weird things last year,” Campbell said. “You look at the rankings and you see yourself sitting at nine and you think, ‘ok, not too bad.’ But last year we were still out because only eight made it. It was a different vibe.
“But it gives us the opportunity to start over in the spring and bring back some traditions we couldn’t do last year. It allowed us to reset.”
Williams Field is one of several teams in the East Valley, and specifically in Gilbert, returning key players for the new season.
CJ Tiller, who started on varsity last year as a sophomore, returns for his junior year. In just eight games, Tiller threw for 1,428 yards through the air and connected with wideouts nine times for a touchdown.
He said last offseason was difficult for him to get a feel for his teammates and build chemistry on the field. Like most schools, Williams Field was limited throughout the spring and summer. All spring meetings took place via zoom and summer workouts were pushed back and delayed at times due to rising cases in the state.
But this offseason, with key COVID-19 metrics declining in the spring, Tiller was able to build a better rapport with his teammates. They worked throughout spring on the field and in the Blackhawks’ new state-of-the-art field house that includes an indoor turf area and weight room. Overall, he’s confident Williams Field will return to its winning ways.
“I didn’t get the chemistry with my guys last year, which kind of held me back a little bit,” Tiller said. “We were able to go to camp this year and play in 7s which has helped a lot. At Williams Field, we just go out and play football. That’s what we plan to do this year. We all can’t wait.”
Tiller’s ability to lead the offense will come with some relative ease. Especially when considering the talent around him. Williams Field has a three-headed monster at tailback with seniors Kaden Cloud, Aziya Jamison and junior Joshua Dye in the backfield. The trio combined for just over 800 yards on the ground last season with only Cloud playing all eight games.
Williams Field also saw contributions from LaSjawn Hunter and Joshua Sovereign out of the backfield, both of which will play a variety of positions in 2021.
Hunter and junior Kyler Kasper are the top two returning wideouts from a year ago, with standout Myles Taylor now at South Dakota State. Kasper, a 6-foot-6 junior, has seen his stock rise this offseason with offers from several major Division I college football programs, including Arizona, Arizona State, Notre Dame, Oregon, UCLA and USC, among others.
Kasper expects to take his game to another level alongside Tiller in the new season. Not only have they been able to work together throughout the entire offseason – on several occasions outside of practice – but they both have a desire to reestablish Williams Field as an East Valley power.
Perhaps the only question mark for Williams Field will be along the offensive line, where two of last year’s five starters return. But the coaches and players all have confidence in their big men. They believe they will hold up against their competition. They showed poise in Williams Field’s scrimmage against a talented Chandler defensive front. Now they set their sights on Higley, their biggest rival, on Sept. 3 to open the season.
“I feel like last season was alright,” said Kasper, who had 412 receiving yards and two touchdowns last season. “This season, though, it’s going to be different. Me and CJ, we were able to get our chemistry down which will make a huge difference. Everyone talks about our line holding up but we all have confidence in them. We just can’t wait.”
Gilbert high school football teams gearing up for the 2021 season
A year removed from competing for its first-ever state title in 2019, Campo Verde made yet another run to the semifinals during the 2020 season. The Coyotes finished 5-3 overall under new head coach Ryan Freeman.
Reilly Garcia returns under center for the Coyotes with an offensive line led by senior standout Hunter Seelye. On defense, the Coyotes’ leading tackler Connor Calloway returns at linebacker. Campo Verde opens the season Sept. 3 against Desert Edge.
Head coach Derek Zellner has made it his mission to get the Gilbert program into the playoffs and secure its first postseason win in several years. The Tigers went 3-5 overall last season and have some new faces at key positions, including Ethan Greenburg at quarterback.
Gilbert does, however, return playmakers Carter Dickie and Cooper Zellner, who both will make an impact on both sides of the ball.
Higley will have a new starting quarterback for the first time in two years after the departure of Kai Millner to Cal. The Knights went 4-4 last season, missing the playoffs in its first season at the 6A level. One of the biggest questions surrounding this team in 2021 is who will take over under center. Junior Cash Merrell has shared time with freshman Jamar Malone, who is already on the radar of Division I colleges.
On defense, the Knights will have a talented secondary led by junior Nijrell Eason. Higley opens the season Sept. 3 against rival Williams Field.
Highland, fresh off a 6A championship loss, is determined to return to the title game and this time take it all if the Hawks don’t find themselves in the Open Division. Gage Dayley returns for his third and final year under center for Highland with several playmakers around him, including Jace Patton and transfers Kaimana Hanohano and Ethan Svoboda.
On defense, Highland will be led by 6-foot-7 defensive end Fisher Camac and star linebacker Carson Allen. Highland hosts Boulder Creek on Sept. 3 to open the season.
Fresh off two straight 4A championships, Mesquite will look to Gerardo Saenz to take over the offense after Ty Thompson graduated and went off to Oregon. Saenz primarily played tight end last year for the Wildcats, but always dreamed of the day he would be able to take over at quarterback. He will have several new faces around him as Marshall commit Andrew Morris – who primarily plays defense – is the only returning wideout for the Wildcats that had considerable stats last season.
On defense, Jaedyn Winston will return to the Mesquite secondary to help Morris after recording three interceptions in 2020. Mesquite opens the 2021 season Sept. 3 against Cactus, a rematch of last year’s 4A title game.
It was a tough season for Perry in 2020 after going 0-6 with two missed games due to COVID. Head coach Preston Jones will have to find a new starting quarterback after the Dane White graduated. Colter Brown saw some time under center last year but junior Jack Amer and senior Gavin Reetz are both fighting for the spot as well.
Perry does return most of its leading tacklers from last season, including Kolton Cunningham and Aiden Herring. The Pumas open the season on Thursday, Sept. 2 against Desert Vista.