College football bowl games have long been viewed as a reward for a program’s success throughout the season.
A select few have more impact than others on a national stage, but each provide their own unique experience for the all players involved.
The 2019 Cheez-It Bowl at Chase Field in Phoenix not only provides players from Washington State and Air Force a unique venue, it allows some to play in front of their hometown crowd.
“I know a lot of us had to get a lot of tickets for this game because everyone wants to come watch us,” said Tre Bugg, a junior defensive back for Air Force. “I know if I want to go home, I can just drive right down the street. It’s great.”
Bugg has played a vital role in the success of Air Force’s defense this season. He’s accounted for 17 total tackles from his starting defensive back position and has three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown, this season.
The junior from Williams Field High School in Gilbert helped lead the Black Hawks to an undefeated season and 5A title in 2016 as a senior. His younger brother, Mason, just finished his senior year at quarterback for the Black Hawks and also won a 5A title. He was recently offered by Air Force.
“Me being the oldest, I really just tried to set a good example for my brothers,” Bugg said. “Mason earned his shot his senior year and broke a bunch of quarterback records at Williams Field. He might have outshined me during the season, but I think my performance was better in the state game.”
Bugg is just one of several local players that continued their football careers at the Air Force Academy. Sophomore Caleb Humphrey has seen time on both kickoff and kickoff return this season for the Falcons. He is also a backup bandit outside linebacker on defense.
“It’s a blessing to be here,” Humphrey said. “Just to have everyone looking up to you and then you are able to come back and play in a bowl game, everyone wants to come watch.”
Humphrey starred at Desert Vista during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. In two years at the varsity level, he recorded 123 total tackles, 67 of which were solo, as a defensive back. He also had six tackles for loss. Friday night’s Cheez-It Bowl was his first game back home since leaving for Air Force in 2018.
He will play in front of most of his family, including younger brother, Colby, who is one of the top senior athletes in the state at Desert Vista.
“I want to see him succeed,” Humphrey said. “I just try to give him all the support I can and he and my big brother do the same for me.”
The pipeline from Arizona to Air Force doesn’t end with Humphrey and Bugg. Sophomore defensive back Corvan Taylor played high school football at Gilbert High School. Senior linebacker Christopher Mussleman graduated from Poston Butte in San Tan Valley, while fellow senior linebacker Jake Ksiazek attended Salpointe Catholic in Tucson.
Freshman linebacker Clayton Randall played his high school ball at Saguaro, while fellow freshmen quarterback Keegan Freid and tight end Kyle Patterson played at Sunrise Mountain and Perry, respectively. Sophomore wideout for Air Force DeAndre Hughes graduated from Tempe and senior offensive lineman Colin Marquez from Red Mountain in Mesa.
“It’s cool to see how far you’ve come just from high school and stuff like that,” Marquez said. “I’m a senior so this is my last ride. It’s pretty fun to think that my final game will be where it all started.”
Several other local athletes from last year’s class will also be part of the Air Force program next season after spending the year with the academy’s prep football program.
While Air Force boasts its fair share of local talent, Washington State has also become a destination for players from the Grand Canyon State.
“I was super excited because I was going to be away for Christmas if we went somewhere else,” Washington State freshman quarterback Gunner Cruz said. “When we found out we were playing at the Cheez-It Bowl my mom was super happy and my dad. I’ll have some of my old teammates there, it’s just super exciting.”
Before Cruz began his career in Pullman, he was lighting up opposing defenses for Casteel High School in Queen Creek.
Cruz led the Colts to a 3A state title in the programs second season playing at the varsity level. The team was entirely made up of juniors, sophomores and freshman when they went on a dominating run. The next season, Cruz led the Colts to the 5A Conference quarterfinals before falling to Higley. He passed for a staggering 3,598 yards his senior year and threw 30 touchdowns with only five interceptions.
Cruz earned a scholarship to Washington State after his junior season and committed in May 2018. He enrolled in the spring of 2019, joining former Central High defensive end and fellow freshman Cosmas Kwete and former Hamilton High and redshirt freshman offensive lineman Hunter Mayginnes to represent Arizona.
“Coach (Jeff) Phelps does a great job recruiting Arizona,” Cruz said. “There’s so much talent in Arizona. Even kids who weren’t in the newspapers as much are getting recruited to big programs and especially here to Washington State.”
Both Kwete and Mayginnes were three-star recruits out of Arizona in their respective classes, as both dominated 6A competition.
Mayginnes will soon be joined in Pullman by his younger brother, Dylan, who just wrapped up his senior season at Hamilton and signed with Washington State on Dec. 18. He said he kept a close eye on how the Huskies did this year to turn the program back in the right direction after a 3-7 finish in 2018.
“It will just be a great experience to have him up here and show him the ropes a little bit,” Mayginnes said. “It’s a shock to be a top recruit in Arizona and then come up and be among other top recruits from across the country.”
Mayginnes expects to have some friends and family present when he and the rest of the Washington State team take the field on Friday night at Chase Field. But he admits several members of his family won’t be there due to a scheduling conflict with his grandfather’s 80th birthday party in Idaho.
Even then, the chance to return home to play on a national stage is a special experience for him and all of the players that represent Arizona on a daily basis at their respective schools.
“I was happy to make it to a bowl,” Mayginnes said. “It will just be a cool experience to play back in Arizona in front of my dad, stepmom, some of my friends and maybe old coaches.”
The 2019 Cheez-It Bowl kicks off Friday, Dec. 27 from Chase Field in Phoenix at 8:15 p.m.