Ron Wisniewski could afford to be picky.
With 21 years of college coaching experience under his belt, a move to high school football was more luxury than necessity in 2010.
So when job openings in Arizona piqued his interest, Wisniewski called an old friend.
“When I first thought about doing this, I talked to (Brophy coach) Scooter Molander, who I’ve known for a long time,” Wisniewski said. “He goes, ‘Wiz, if you’re going to coach at a public school, you’ve got to be on the fringe.’”
Wisniewski listened, applied for and eventually landed the job at Red Mountain. The school sits at Brown Road and Power Road in east Mesa, where new, affordable homes attract young families who have both the energy and wealth to invest in the local high school’s sports programs.
In his two seasons, the Mountain Lions are 15-8, the only team in the Mesa school district above .500 in that timeframe.
It’s similar in the Gilbert school district, where Desert Ridge has found success on the outskirts while Gilbert, Mesquite and Highland have struggled recently in more confined spaces.
Chandler is the southernmost city in the Phoenix suburbs, and its football teams are thriving.
“It’s cheaper to live out here than 10-to-15 miles in, near, say, Gilbert High School,” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said. “It’s just cheaper and seven minutes quicker because of the freeway expansions. If I’m a young family, sure, I’ll take that package.”
Steve Campbell found immediate success when he left McClintock for Williams Field, finishing 9-2 in his first varsity season and making the 4A-II championship game in his second. He is well aware of the advantages his new school provides.
“If you’re in an area that’s going to grow for awhile, the population will keep increasing and kids will come through,” he said. “There are some gorgeous areas around McClintock, but nobody wants to get rid of those houses. Those kids went to McClintock in the 70s and 80s. Those people are not moving out. When you get to the landlocked areas, you don’t have that steady growth.”
The shifting areas of dominance are hard to argue.
McClintock excelled in the 1980s before declining. Mountain View became a dynasty in the 1980s and 1990s and stayed elite until early in this decade, but has dropped off as the neighborhood has aged. Mesa made a Cinderella run to the 5A Division I state championship game in 2009, but is not the yearly force it was before the change in demographics.
“Those schools all had that run, and when they did they were on the fringe,” Campbell said.
While the overall trend seems to benefit peripheral schools, it’s certainly not a death sentence to programs based in older neighborhoods. Marcos de Niza and Saguaro are two of the most successful teams in the state despite being landlocked, in large part because transfers and open enrollers want to play for them.
Chaparral, Chandler and Desert Vista also don’t have a bunch of growth potential, but have used various factors to remain among the elite.
“The landlock thing, I don’t look at it that way,” said San Tan Foothills coach Rodger Schenks, who played at Mountain View and has also coached at Red Mountain. “It’s an excuse and a pity party. If you have a good coach, the kids will stay.”
There are exceptions on the other end. Skyline and Desert Ridge are only separated by two miles, but the Coyotes are just 6-26 in the past three years while the Jaguars have been to the title game and the semifinals in that span.
Being landlocked is a hurdle that can be overcome, and on the flip side, sitting on the periphery is not a cure-all.
“When the housing boom hit, everyone moved outward to get the deals, but it has to be a combination of both (coaching and location) because there are outlying schools who’ve been terrible recently,” Hathcock said.
Current NFL star Terrell Suggs famously left Chandler for brand-new Hamilton as a senior in 2000.
A perfect confluence of factors helped the Huskies reach their current dominant state, including coaching, support from the administration, facilities and location.
Now there seems to be no stopping Hamilton, which not only is the destination of aspiring athletes everywhere, but has a nice base and room to grow.
Basha may soon be one of its year-in, year-out foes. The Bears have found steady success, and still have plenty of room for growth.
“It hasn’t really started but they’re building a lot of houses out here,” Basha coach Bernie Busken said. “If those get hot like they’re starting to get now, that would be a big boost for us.”
With the relatively new phase of free-for-all open enrollment and transfers, maybe location and growth potential won’t matter as much in the future. In 10 years, even if Williams Field gets swallowed up by housing, the foundation laid by Campbell could be enough to keep the program successful.
Mountain View went downhill because the neighborhood aged and transfers never came to the rescue. If coach Chad DeGrenier can build it back up, Mountain View could become a force again.
Mesquite is in the midst of a steep enrollment decline as students transfer or enroll at neighboring schools. The Wildcats may drop to Division II next season and are also looking for their footing.
“You need to have a little bit of patience,” coach Matt Gracey said. “Desert Ridge is the perfect example. Jeremy’s been there, what, six years? It took a couple years, but he got the program in order and now things are working. It’s what we’re all trying to do.”
DeGrenier and Gracey are among a group of newer coaches at landlocked schools trying to find success. For most, it might be too much to ask to be perennial contenders.
But Mesa made that unforgettable run three years ago, and Arcadia made the Division III semifinals just last year.
In the end, the opportunities are still available, but don’t happen very often.
“The facilities and (location) don’t matter,” Schenks said. “You’re going to see Dobson get better, because those kids are going to know George (De La Torre) is going to bend over backwards for them. They’re going to start going back to Westood and not go to other schools because (Spencer) Stowers has high energy and charisma.
“X’s and O’s and Friday nights is just 5 percent. Put my kid against yours, and who is going to fight the hardest? Those are the ones that are successful.”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.