Blind pole vaulter with a vision
Valley Christian junior Aria Ottmueller was born completely blind because of optic nerve hypoplasia, which is a medical condition arising from the underdevelopment of the optic nerve. She gained some sight (20/200 vision) at age 4, only to lose 50 percent of that in the eighth grade (20/400), but thanks to pestering coach Dan Kuiper, repetition, muscle memory, and an ability to at least differentiate the runway from grass (she can’t see colors or the pit), she qualified for the Division IV state championship meet with a 6-feet, 7-inch leap at the Chandler city meet after only six practices. The gymnast and former runner finished tied for sixth with a leap of 7 feet, 6 inches at the state championship meet. Her goal in next spring’s state meet: 9 feet.
The East Valley and all of Arizona high school lost one of its great leaders in Art Wagner, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound near Higley High School on May 15. Since his football-playing days in Texas and his Arizona beginnings at McClintock, Wagner, 43, worked his up the proverbial ladder as a larger-than-life presence who worked tirelessly (perhaps to a fault) throughout the Higley Unified School District and the Arizona Interscholastic Association in a variety of leadership positions. His infectious personality — “it’s all good” and “yes, sir” were his catchphrases — coupled with his extreme work ethic and refusal to say “no” tangibly affected thousands of kids, teachers, coaches and school staff for nearly 20 years. Hundreds attended his “celebration of life” at the Higley Center for the Performing Arts less than a week later, a night of laughs, stories, hugs and Kleenex as Wagner’s life and life lessons were recounted.
New Division/Section alignments offer appeals
After new school/sport alignments involving revamped sections were approved last spring, the new two-year alignment and scheduling blocks were put into action beginning in the fall. The result being (mostly) smaller sections within each division and geographically nearby (for the most part) was much more positively received than the previous two-year alignment strategy. Unlike the previous model, nearly every school will play all other schools in its respective section, which allowed for a more realistic section champion and automatic state tournament berth. The other well-received concept was the ability to appeal a school’s divisional and/or sectional placement for an individual sport through an appeals committee based subjectively on recent competitiveness, socioeconomics and the sport’s participation numbers at the school. All told, 527 appeals (any combination of a school and its sport(s)) submitted appeals, 463 of those were to move a sport down a division, 64 programs appealed up.
Mountain Pointe football dominance
Coming back re-loaded from its first state championship appearance in 2012 (a loss to Hamilton), the Mountain Pointe football season began at the Barry Sollenberger Classic in Las Vegas, a place where whatever happens there is supposed to stay there. Only it didn’t. What Mountain Pointe did to Nevada-powerhouse Bishop Gorman in the opening-week victory was televised nationally and became the appetizer and the impetus to finishing No. 6 in the final MaxPreps national poll. The Pride went 14-0 in convincing fashion with the closest margin of victory being 10 points as they fulfilled senior lineman Natrell Curtis’ preseason promise to earn a ring. The offense was multifaceted, the defense was as physical and fast as any this state has seen according to several opposing coaches, and the coaching staff made all the right decisions to give the Mountain Pointe its first state football title, which vaulted the Pride to No. 6 nationally, according to MaxPreps.com.
St. Mary's basketball
For three consecutive seasons, St. Mary’s girls basketball was a team by itself: winning state championships, competing nationally against the best and facing little resistance from the rest of Arizona along the way. Through the school and club circles, former coach Curtis Ekmark assembled the most dominant teams the state has ever seen, and everyone else was left to compete for a distant second place. But after winning a third consecutive state championship last spring, graduations and Ekmark’s departure from the school to build a Nike program (his daughter, Courtney, is forgoing her senior season of high school hoops), the Knights are no longer a dreaded dynasty. After former WNBA standout Coco Miller was hired but suddenly resigned, former Tempe Prep standout Liberty Brittain was hired to lead the Knights as they embark on a new direction.
The Chandler athlete has already made a pretty good historical case as the best female athlete to come out of the East Valley, Westbrook won three individual state championships at the Division I state meet last spring and set state records in the 200-meter dash (23.39 seconds) and shot put (47 feet, 9 inches) as the Wolves again rolled to a state championship. She’s continued her national and world pursuits by winning the 100-meter dash at the World Youth Championships last summer in Ukraine. She’s adding hurdles and long jump to her arsenal as she sets her sight on pentathlon. By the way, she’s a senior.
Red Mountain softball
The roster changes, kids change positions, dynamics change, but the hardware hasn’t moved from Red Mountain’s trophy case since 2010. An unprecedented fourth consecutive state title was earned last May, not to mention a fifth consecutive title game appearance. Other schools such as Chaparral and Seton Catholic have flirted with state softball streaks similar to this before, but not at the big-school level, and while a few kids remained from a year or two ago, it’s obviously a completely different makeup than three and four years ago. Softball’s growth and talent explosion in the Valley has been as fast as any sport in the past five years, yet the dead-end for everyone else continues to be setup on Brown Road in east Mesa.
Wrestling is revived
Order was restored. Common sense prevailed. The wrestling community did its job. The International Olympic Committee righted a wrong when it was announced on Sept. 8 that the oldest sport will continue to be part of the Olympic Games for at least the next decade. The ancient sport was put on the possible chopping block because leadership became complacent and the scoring can be hard to follow for those not familiar, making it hard to put it on during prime hours of a broadcast. Wrestling won 49 votes, compared with 24 for baseball/softball and 22 for squash in voting by delegates of the Olympic committee. The vote guaranteed that freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling would be contested at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the 2024 Olympics, which have yet to be awarded.
Runners new reign
Dani Jones set the tempo and the young’ens followed. Desert Vista stopped Xavier’s six-year reign as the Division I girls cross country state champions with Jones, a junior, winning the individual title. It could lead to a string of championships, as four of the top seven competitors were freshmen. Jones also set an Arizona standard after she is believed to have the highest ever finish in the 10th annual Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore., after she earned All-American status after finishing 15th overall. Led by Nate Rodriguez and unmatched depth, the Corona del Sol boys took the top three spots in state for the first time in cross country history in rolling to the state championship. It capped an undefeated season for Rodriguez — who won every meet he raced in — and the Aztecs’ Ryan Normand and Marcus Wheeler joined Rodriguez to form one of the best trios in state history
Football semifinals washout
Mother Nature’s fury during the football semifinals when heavy rains led to the AIA postponing the Nov. 22 semifinals until the next Monday citing safety concerns, attendance and field conditions. Jokes and criticism poured in (pun intended) from followers, fans and even coaches. More than one suggested a conspiracy theory was at work, not only for money purposes, but that AIA Executive Director Harold Slemmer, a former principal at Mountain Pointe High School, moved the games back because it would have been advantageous for Desert Ridge to play the Pride in sloppy conditions in Division I. The fields dried enough to play on by the end of that weekend, and schedules were quickly moved back, with the Divisions I through V semifinals rescheduled for Nov. 25, while championship games remained on Nov. 29 (Div. II, III and IV) or Nov. 30 (Div. I).
Chandler football beats Hamilton for the first time in school history.
Basketball standout Connor MacDougall successfully appeals transfer from Westwind Prep to Corona del Sol.
Controversy surrounds Tom Joseph (Corona del Sol) and Roy Lopez (Marcos de Niza) departures from their respective football teams.
Chandler’s Dalton Brady wins fourth career wrestling state championship after moving up two weight classes to help the team.
Mountain View boys basketball coach Gary Ernst wins 800th career game.
Highland girls basketball coach Miner Webster wins 700th career game.
ormer Mesa standout linebacker and Florence coach Bill McKane passes away of a heart attack at age 38.
Coolidge accuses Hamilton of recruiting football player JT Gray at summer camp, Gray eventually enrolls at Basha and then leaves for Mississippi and Hamilton is cleared after an investigation.
Chandler athletic director Dave Shapiro (pictured) retires after 31 years, 15 as A.D.
Dion Jordan becomes highest NFL Draft selection from East Valley at No. 3 to Miami.