When Terry Dietz took over the Higley baseball program ahead of the 2019-20 season, he aimed to change the perception and culture of the team.
Higley had just three winning seasons before Dietz arrived on campus. The team had routinely been near the bottom of its region and participation numbers in the lower-level programs had started to decline. An assistant at Seton Catholic under Brian Stephenson for several years, Dietz had knowledge on how to run a program, he just wanted to do it in his own way.
“Anytime you try to change a culture, it’s difficult,” Dietz said. “But once guys see the way things should be, whether it’s for their individual progression, the progression of the program, once you do things the right way, it’s contagious.”
Dietz’s first season with Higley was cut short due to the pandemic. The Knights played just seven games before they were forced to separate from one another for most of the spring.
The cancellation made it difficult for him to initially establish chemistry within the program. But once the district allowed teams to begin training sessions in the summer, he immediately set out to begin building the program with his vision in mind.
Practices began to mirror a college program. Dietz established a coat of arms for the program with each segment of the shield having a different meaning. He’s also switched up the team’s color scheme, incorporating a light blue into the coat of arms and uniforms. It’s a fresh new look that signals change in direction of the program.
“I think these guys were starving for something they didn’t know existed,” Dietz said. “They enjoy being out here, they enjoy being together. Everything we do here is much different than what it was in the past.”
At 12-2 through 14 games, it’s the best start in program history for the Knights. They currently rank No. 5 in the 5A Conference and are in the hunt to win a region championship. The success is not only a reflection of the changes brought to the program by Dietz but the buy-in from players as well.
“The whole culture, the atmosphere, everything is completely different,” senior infielder Cody Mowers said. “Being here for four years, it’s been like a fresh start. And I think that’s what this program really needed.”
Mowers is one of just four seniors on this year’s team and he’s lived up to the expectations that come with his status. He has one of the highest batting averages on the team at .429 and has driven in 18 runs, the second-most in the program. He’s witnessed first-hand the shift in the program’s culture with Dietz at the helm, and it’s made for an enjoyable experience the last two seasons despite one being cut short.
Mowers has helped play a role the last three years in adapting new players to the program. This season he helped junior center fielder Jake Willerup adapt to Higley baseball’s new culture.
Willerup spent the last two seasons playing for Aragon High School in San Mateo, Calif. He made the move to Higley after California, which just recently began easing COVID-19 restrictions, pushed back all of its sports including football to the spring and delayed the baseball season, which just recently started.
The transition to a new state, school and baseball team was one Willerup expected to be more difficult than it actually was. Higley welcomed him with open arms, and he immediately made a connection with his teammates.
“(The transition) wasn’t that hard at all,” Said Willerup, who is batting .419 and has a team-high 19 RBI this season. “The first couple of days and especially the first couple of weeks I felt right at home. I didn’t feel like the new kid, everyone felt like my family and they treated me like I had been there already. It was really nice.”
Willerup will continue to be part of what Dietz referred to as a youth movement for the Higley baseball program.
The team is bursting at the seams with young talent, led in part by sophomore pitcher Justin Chambers, a Washington State University commit. At 6-foot-3, Chambers is one of the tallest and fastest players on Higley’s roster. He also happens to be one of the best all-around players in the state.
In eight appearances on the mound this season he has a 1.79 ERA. He’s given up just seven earned runs and has struck out 47 batters and walked nine others. He also has a team-high .476 batting average with 10 RBI.
“You can really see the difference this year on game day,” Chambers said. “Last year there were still some people who maybe didn’t buy-in to the new culture. This year, though, there’s so much energy on game day. It doesn’t matter who is starting and who is not, everyone wants to be here.”
Dietz believes Chambers may have a chance to skip college altogether and be drafted by the time his senior year rolls around. But until then, Higley has set out to continue on its hot streak this season and chase a state title.
All three players and Dietz know it won’t be an easy task. And it’s never guaranteed. But this new-look Higley baseball team has a renewed sense of faith. One of the biggest motivating factors this year is to send the seniors off with a sense of accomplishment.
Whether that be a region title, deep playoff run or state title, both Chambers and Willerup agreed helping seniors like Mowers have success in potentially their final year of baseball is one of the team’s key goals for the year.
“It’s comforting to know I’ve got people playing behind me,” Mowers said. “Really not knowing what I’m going to do after this, it could be my last couple of weeks playing the game I grew up playing. It’s comforting to know we’ve got a solid group of 18 guys willing to lay it all out there me.”