Mesquite fighting a numbers game - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Mesquite fighting a numbers game

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Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 5:24 pm | Updated: 1:30 pm, Fri Nov 25, 2011.

For years, Mesquite had one of the bigger school boundaries in the East Valley.

It would draw in kids from the south and east, especially, as the school's enrollment swelled to approximately 3,400 kids three years ago.

Since then, growth around the area has stagnated and other schools popped up and ate into those numbers. Mesquite could go from one of the bigger high schools in the state to one that may fall below 2,000 kids on its campus within a couple years.

"I know there's a misconception because talking to other athletic directors, when they find out that we have a little over 100 kids in our football program, they say, ‘How come, man? You guys are big,'" Mesquite athletic director Jason Grantham said. "No, we're not, we're at 2,200 (students).

"They literally were busting out of the seams. We got rid of 15 portable (classrooms) this summer. Everybody's back in the building."

This year's senior class is the last of those peak years. Campo Verde opened in 2009 and it siphoned away many of the school's students.

Look no further than the football team for proof.

The Wildcats have a senior core that would make many others envious. Running back Anthony Lopez has verbally committed to Arizona, tight end Kody Kohl has verbally committed to Arizona State, and Josh Bamrick is one of the state's best linebackers.

In past years, Mesquite would have capable players to put around them and be comfortably bound for the playoffs.

But the dropoff with the juniors has been so severe - the team's varsity roster lists seven -that several starters are forced to play both ways, something much less common in previous seasons.

For the first time in his high school career, senior quarterback Steven Bevan is playing defense.

"Special teams is break enough for me," Bevan said. "I get a few seconds off and that's good enough."

Bevan may put on a brave face, but there's no question it affects Mesquite. The team went 9-3 last year, but is 3-5 this season. Granted, Mesquite is doing it against one of the state's toughest schedules (Red Mountain, Chandler, Hamilton, Desert Vista, Chaparral and Gilbert), but the dwindling numbers have not helped.

"I feel bad for these guys," Mesquite coach Matt Gracey said. "Nine wins last year to three? It's such a good senior class, but the numbers caught up to them."

Mesquite's current freshman class is only about 500 kids - down from approximately 850 a few years ago - and only 38 are playing football.

After years of competing in Division I, the Wildcats are looking at the real possibility that the school's enrollment numbers will drop down to Division II. Grantham said he would like to keep all of his sports in the same division.

"We'll re-evaluate in the next two-year block to see where we are going to be," he said. "I'd like to keep playing these teams, because you establish rivalries with Highland and Gilbert, but things change. We went from two years ago being in that crazy Fiesta Region when I was (coaching baseball) at Red Mountain to no regions at all. We went from AD's scheduling everything to computers picking it. So, nobody knows what it's going to be two years from now. We'll just figure out what to do when we get there."

Gracey said he was made aware of Mesquite's changing landscape when he was hired to replace the retired Mike Reardon in March. He was a late hire and commuted to the school from California during the summer, which played a role in the small freshman class.

Like it or not, schools with uncertainty at the top lose out on kids.

"The way that people decide where they go to school, we've got to get into that, to where we are getting some of those kids to want to come here," Gracey said. "We've got to do a better job of selling Mesquite and get those players. It's unfortunate, because you used to go where you were supposed to go, and now you go where you think you stand the best chance to win or can get a scholarship. It takes a little while to sell that."

Could a drop to Division II be a good thing? The smaller numbers means more opportunities for early playing time, and it evens the playing field because most teams in the lower divisions have depth issues. Gracey said Mesquite could fill a niche in the area for those types of players.

"Hopefully what the kids see is an opportunity to play," Gracey said. "We have to figure out what it is they want. Do they want to sit around for three years and hope to play their senior year, or go to a place and have a good shot to play (varsity) for three years?

"There are things we can offer them that no one else can, and it just depends what they are looking for."

Gracey said he is looking forward to the season finale against undefeated-Glendale Deer Valley. The Skyhawks knocked off powerhouse Peoria Centennial earlier this year and have a solid team.

But in Division II, Deer Valley doesn't have the same depth as a school like Hamilton, so it could be a preview as to how Mesquite can fare down the line. Neither Gracey nor Grantham would have a problem dropping down a division.

"People think, ‘Oh, you want to run down to Division II,'" Gracey said. "There are some good teams in Division II. It's not running down. It's simply getting to a point where you are playing schools that are going to share your same problems. When you've got 3,500 kids in the school, you're not sharing the same problems as a school that has 2,000. When you're in those (lower) divisions, you share the same problems. It's just different."

Thanks to its strength of schedule, Mesquite's season isn't over yet. If the Wildcats beat Corona del Sol and Deer Valley to end the year, they will almost assuredly qualify for the postseason with a .500 record.

"If we get in the playoffs, I think we can cause some trouble for some teams," Bevan said. "We're definitely getting overlooked."

But it could be the last hurrah for Mesquite in Division I for awhile. The microscopic junior class doesn't bode well for the 2012 season, and, after that, the drop to Division II could happen.

There isn't much room for growth in the neighborhoods surrounding the school, although Gracey thinks an uptick in the economy could bring families back to houses in the area that are currently vacant.

However, with the bevy of new schools around them and open enrollment continuing to pull kids in all different directions, Mesquite seems to be looking at an altered reality for the foreseeable future.

"These (seniors) are the last class of that era, when Mesquite was a big school," Gracey said. "We've got some great kids coming back, but we need to see if we can continue to compete with the new numbers we have. I don't think anyone expected (the enrollment drop) to happen as fast as it did. We're headed in the right direction, and I want to continue going that way. Whether it's (Division) I or II, we want to be competitive wherever (the next two-year alignment) leaves us."

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