Arizona’s rise in athletic prowess over the last decade has led to national recognition for the state by way of top-ranked athletes in their respective sports.
Many Arizonans have appeared in championship games, Olympics and more high-magnitude sporting events. In recent years, several schools in the East Valley have seen some of its own competing at a high level, including Highland, Desert Ridge, Perry, Chandler and Hamilton. These same schools, plus others, are also breeding the next generation of talent.
Higley now joins that list.
“Personally, I’ve never been a part of something like this,” Higley football coach and the on-campus NCAA Coordinator Eddy Zubey said. “I think it goes to show you can come to Higley and get a good education while also being a top-notch athlete. It’s a unique situation having them here. I just hope they can all become their own support system.”
Higley is home to three of the top athletes in the nation for their respective sport and class. Juniors Keaton Jones, one of the top swimmers in the country, Justin Chambers, a Washington State baseball commit, and sophomore Nijrell Eason II, one of the state’s top class of 2024 defensive backs, have all been representing Higley the last two or three years. Chuck Bailey, a highly-touted basketball player for the Knights last season, recently announced he was transferring to Donda Academy, a prep school run by Kanye West.
It has created an interesting dynamic around the school, as their peers and fellow athletes see their rise in college recruiting rankings.
But despite their notoriety on campus, the four have rarely come together. That is, until one September morning. Zubey and school Athletic Director Aaron Dille had the four meet each other in the school’s weight room. Their goal was to have them mingle and get to know one another. It didn’t take long for numbers to be exchanged and conversation to turn into their respective recruitment to schools.
Jones has spent most of his fall semester on recruiting visits to colleges. It has kept the top-ranked swimmer in the state for the 2023 class away from the Higley team, but he soon hopes to return in time to compete in a few meets before the state competition.
On top of his No. 1 overall ranking in Arizona, Jones is the 16th ranked swimmer in the country for the 2023 class. He holds offers from major Division I programs across the country and this past summer qualified and competed in the Olympic Trials.
He exploded onto the swimming scene as a freshman when he qualified for the trials. But due to the pandemic, his trip was delayed. Instead, he and several teammates from his club team, Swim Neptune, swam 25 miles in 24 hours as part of the Going the Extra Mile Challenge. Together, the swimmers raised money for retirement homes and other assisted living facilities, which at the time were being hit the hardest by COVID-19.
Along with his accomplishment for charity, Jones has also been crowned champion on several occasions. Just this past summer he took first in a variety of events in several high-level competitions, including the Arizona Senior Long Course Championships on July 22 and Speedo Sectionals in Texas on July 15.
Jones has also claimed several school records while at Higley.
“The team has put in so much work,” Jones said. “Just being able to come in and work with them, all of us together have put the team on another level. Winning state as a team and seeing it grow has been really great to see.”
Chambers is no stranger to the recruiting process for his accolades on the mound. Schools started showing interest in the 6-foot-2, 180-pound left-handed pitcher when he was a freshman at Higley.
He batted .508 last season for the Knights and had a 5-2 overall record from the mound. In 12 appearances, he had a 2.47 ERA. A visit to Washington State’s campus in Pullman, Wash. was enough for him to fall in love with the facilities. He committed as a sophomore, and still maintains his loyalty to the Cougars while he hopes to lead Higley to a title.
“We went from bottom of the region every year to going on a 15-4 run and competing against everyone,” Chambers said. “It felt really good to get to that point and to see where we go from here.”
Chambers played a vital role in Higley quickly becoming a contender at the 5A level. Under head coach Terry Dietz, the culture of the program changed drastically and revamped its look with a new logo and added a powder blue uniform set to the mix.
Eason hopes those fresh uniforms can one day make their way to the football program at Higley, where he has quickly become a leader now in his second season starting at defensive back at the varsity level.
A quiet, humble kid off the field, Eason turns into a playmaker for the Knights on it, which has led to some college interest for the young star.
Eason, whose father played at Arizona State, is somewhat familiar with the recruiting process for high school athletes. However, it has changed drastically. He said he enjoys now having the ability to look up to the three older athletes and discuss recruiting with them.
He also enjoys the thought of one day having all of them competing at the next level while representing Higley.
“I think it’s a great feeling to see some of us younger guys representing Higley’s programs,” Eason said. “It’ll be great to see them on TV in a few years and just know I went to high school with them.”