In record time, Queen Creek’s Casteel High becomes dominant football program

Casteel High School quarterback Gunner Cruz smiles during practice. His team is among the favorites to win the 3A title. (Photo by Jamie Nish/Cronkite News)

QUEEN CREEK — Two-plus years. That’s how quickly Casteel High School developed a dominant football program.

The school opened its doors in 2015 and is already making its presence felt in Division 3A. Still a year away from graduating its first class, and in just its second year with a varsity team, Casteel is 4-0 and a popular choice to win the state title as it heads into Friday’s matchup against Show Low (3-1).

“I challenged my coaches that within two years of having varsity we would have a state championship and we’re right on track,” principal Sandy Lundberg said.

There is a process to developing a dominant football program, Lundberg and athletic director Ryan Ridenour said. It begins with a vision and hiring the right coach.

“When we started this school, I believed that we had a community and a structure set up (where) we would be able to be very successful in a short period of time,” Lundberg said. “It’s having to find the right coaches. We got lots of great support with our weightlifting program, and with the parents’ support and our facilities and all of that.”

Ridenour believes that vision is important as well as a “coaching staff that’s willing and able to implement that vision and stay consistent with it and stay (on) the path.”

Spencer Stowers, Casteel’s first and only head coach, believes targeting the right players was key.

“We focused on those who said ‘I want to be a Colt from day one,’ ” Stowers said. “And we develop them and create some attention for others outside looking in who want to come into our program, but our belief is to be a platoon team. Twenty-two guys who are playing and not just 11, and try to develop not only our top 10 players but all the players that are in our program.”

Casteel is not your traditional high school, as it includes grades 7 through 12. For Stowers, who previously coached at Mesa Westwood, the transition was difficult at first.

“I’ll be quite honest, I didn’t know where to start,” Stowers said. “All I knew is we had to get numbers quickly. We had to try to get players that want to be a part of our program. I didn’t have a roster. I didn’t quite know any families in the area.”

As time went on, Stowers said being a part of a 7-through-12 school was actually a benefit. The model allows the program to develop kids at a young age with the hope of them being ready sooner to play at the varsity level.

Casteel quarterback Gunner Cruz is one of those that has been with the football program from the beginning. Now, he is a junior and made school history when he became the first athlete from Casteel to receive a Division I scholarship offer.

The school was Arizona State.

“It’s a blessing for sure,” Cruz said. “My teammates have a big part to do with that, with great receivers, great offensive line, and it puts our school in a good situation now where other people are going to get looked at. … I’m glad to break down that door so that everyone else can get the recognition.”

Cruz does not only attribute the football program’s early success to his teammates but to his coaches as well. With the school being relatively new, Cruz said Stowers instilling his culture right off the bat has helped

The football program has existed for three years but this is only the second year of varsity. Last season, the Colts finished 9-2, ultimately falling to Yuma Catholic in the first round of the 3A state tournament. This year, they have outscored opponents 224-21. Although it may be surprising to some, Casteel’s quick development is not as much of a surprise to the administrative staff.

“I think we shocked a lot of people,” Lundberg said. “When they said here’s a configuration for the schools 7 through 12, we knew as a team and as an administrative team, they were handing us the keys to a Ferrari. Many people didn’t understand that. We got it and knew those aspects to be great. You’re seeing fruits of that already.”

“It didn’t shock us because we knew what was being set up across the board,” Ridenour said.

The reaction from the community has been positive, and it shows at games. The school is considering bringing in portable bleachers for its homecoming game, as well as one against Yuma Catholic. The modifications speak volumes to the rapid growth of the team’s fanbase.

“I think it’s just been exciting for the families, especially those who really took a risk on us two years ago in 2015 when we opened,” Stowers said. “I’ve seen how this thing was going to grow and how it was going to develop, (and) kind of where their kids fit into all of it. It’s been pretty rewarding for those who have been here since Day One, exciting for everybody who’s involved.”

The program continues to evolve, and as it does, so does the offense and culture, Cruz said. What was once a simple scheme has transitioned into something more complex.

“Football-wise, our offense has gone from just basic inside zone, outside zone, stretch, basic passing plays, to now we’re doing (run/pass option schemes) and we’re changing the plays at the line,” Cruz said. “We get a lot more freedom — the receivers, quarterbacks, line — we’re all doing our own calls, so football-wise, it’s evolved a lot.”

This is just the beginning, Ridenour said, and believes something special is on the horizon.

“This really is (where) all the pieces are in play to see a whole lot of (success) down the line,” Ridenour said. “The successes are just on the surface right now, they really are.”

Casteel hopes the football program will continue to evolve and be a program that helps young athletes reach their goals and get to the next level.

Even though it is a new program in a far off location, Cruz said that is something the team embraces and is looking forward to the challenge of potentially playing against larger schools.

“We like that, especially being in Chandler School District with such great football programs,” Cruz said. “Schools like Hamilton and Chandler, they gave us something and now we’re chasing them, and there’s no reason that in a couple years we can’t be competing with them and right there with those top-tier programs.”

That is in the future. For now, Stowers said Casteel is in a great position and the program are eager to see just how dominant it can be.

“”We’re looking forward to be in that 5A school, and being a top 5A school,” Stowers said. “We’ll see where that leads down the road. (What) we tell everyone right now is we can only play who’s on our schedule and only control what’s happening right now, so we’re focused on being the best 3A team in the state.”