PHOENIX – High school athletes rarely get to look over their shoulder and have cameras with the ESPN logo pointed in their direction. For the unbeaten Hamilton and Saguaro football programs, they are among the lucky few who get to showcase their talent on the national stage by the biggest network in sports.
Week 8 of the ESPN Geico High School Football Showcase features Hamilton vs. Saguaro Friday at 6 p.m. The game between the two Arizona powerhouses airs on ESPN2.
While most of the players and coaches say they are approaching this game like any other, the preparation that goes into having a nationally televised event is nothing like their other games this season.
“It’s really the organization, making sure we got all the paperwork and forms that ESPN needs. But other than that, it’s just preparing for a very quality opponent,” Hamilton coach Mike Zdebski said.
Hamilton, the away team, does not have a lot of responsibilities, according to Brett Palmer, the Huskies’ athletic director. Saguaro does most of the leg work.
Initially, both teams had to sign a contract from Paragon Marketing and ESPN agreeing to certain conditions that included the game’s start time and media rules.
The other key piece is the “confidentiality agreement that you’re not not going to put anything out into the public or media about the game until ESPN has done so themselves. You kind of wait for that moment where they give you the green light to start promoting the game,” said Matthew Harris, Saguaro’s athletic director.
Now, during game week, Saguaro is making sure their field is ready for a Friday night that’s bigger than any other football Friday night. A trailer for the production team was dropped off on Wednesday.
Jason Moon, one of the local staff members on the production team, has been especially helpful to Saguaro’s athletic director.
“Outstanding guy I’ve been working with. … He helps with the production, but he comes out and does a site survey. So there’s been a lot of one-on-one meetings with him on campus, and phone calls (to make) sure our campus meets (their) needs to be able to run an event like this,” Harris said.
Communication is vital, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic has forced most of the ESPN crew to remain in Bristol, Connecticut, the network’s sprawling home campus. Craig Haubert and Jay Alter, the announcers for all ESPN High School Showcase games, will call plays off the TV from two separate meeting rooms in Bristol, with a spotter to help.
Both schools were asked to provide player profiles, questionnaires from players and coaches, and their headshots so ESPN can use the material during the broadcast and pre-game, Harris said.
But, “the more helpful (the schools) are, the better the broadcast is. … Hamilton has sent us over everything they can, (like) player questionnaires and I’ve got to learn some things just looking through those this morning,” Haubert said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Coaches had a conference call Wednesday afternoon and the more insight they can provide about their program helps Haubert and Alter translate that to fans watching from home.
“The more open the coaches are with us, the better position it puts us to shine a light on those programs and their communities,” Haubert said.
But the most difficult piece of the puzzle for Haubert and Alter is getting a feel for the energy and the crowd without being there.
“I think it’s dependent on myself and (Jay) just to still bring the same energy whether we were there or not. Nothing replaces being there, but we are still calling football,” Haubert said.
Last week’s High School Football Showcase featuring Booker T. Washington against Newman in Louisiana was great for Haubert and Alter. Newman fans blew vuvuzelas, the colorful, plastic horns popular in World Cups and South African soccer matches. Haubert and Alter were able to hear the horns through the broadcast, making their job of describing the crowd to viewers a lot easier.
In accordance with COVID-19 district guidelines, Saguaro stadium will be at 25% capacity on Friday, Harris said. Each football player and each member of the spirit line and the band will receive two tickets for the game.
But no matter which guests the students choose, fans will still be able to root on their respective school at home, thanks to ESPN’s easy accessibility.
“That’s the best part about it, because so many people have access to [ESPN]. From having cable at home or being able to watch it from any of their devices. To me, it is a perfect situation where this game is going to reach a national audience,” Harris said.
Spurred by a fierce second-half comeback, Saguaro beat Hamilton, 20-16, in the AIA Open Division semifinal round last year. Both teams have a number of Division I college prospects and talented players on their roster this season. Under coach Jason Mohns, Saguaro (2-0) throttled Maricopa, 70-14, last week. Hamilton, also 2-0, put up an extraordinary 106 points against its first two opponents, setting the stage for what could be a high-scoring affair on the national stage.
The Arizona football dynasties have captured a combined 19 state titles in the 2000s. Hamilton has seven state championships and features highly-recruited junior quarterback Nicco Marchiol, while Saguaro is a 12-time state championship team with a slew of great weapons.
“I think they have a lot of great players. … No. 7 Xander [Werner], he can do it all. … They are really smart too. … (so) just being ready for what they have to throw at us,” Hamilton safety Jack Howell said.
As for Huskies center Christian McCook and the offensive line, “trying to cancel that good D-Line on Saguaro” is key.
The fact that this game has tension, heavy competition and rivalry makes it easier for the players to stay locked in and tune out the well-known red writing on the sidelines.
“I think the level of severity of the game and this being a rival from last year and just trying to play for your brothers and the level and intensity of the game will keep us more engaged and not distract any of our guys from our main goal of coming out with the victory. I think as far as our whole team, I think we are going to handle being televised on the national level pretty well,” said Marchiol, who is being recruited by at least 25 colleges, including Florida, Florida State, Michigan and USC.
One can only imagine for any athlete, but especially teenagers, how hard it can be to look past the red block letters and play a calm and collected game without it getting to their heads. For some, their dream is for ESPN to be a constant in their careers. It will take some mental toughness to ignore the elephant on the sideline.
“I think it’s hard to ignore (the ESPN presence) especially being young teenagers. I think both teams are going to be very excited for the exposure,” Palmer said. “Obviously, it’s going to kick in with some adrenaline at the beginning. I think once the kickoff gets going I think all that goes out the window and both teams are focusing on their game plans and executions.”
McCook acknowledged that the ESPN crew will be easy to spot, but “in the heat of the game, you don’t really notice anything, but we have to just look past that and do our thing.”
In practice this week Zdebski, the Hamilton coach, has been honing in on the details, in order to properly prepare his players against a heavy media presence and a physical opponent.
“It’s the technical aspect. They just got to do the little things right. They can’t get caught up in who they are playing against,” he said. “You just got to do your job to the best of your ability.”
At the end of the night, win, lose or draw, each school will be able to showcase their tremendously talented programs on ESPN — a moment many athletes covet and one they’ll never forget.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be on the national spotlight and exposure for our program, our school and our community,” Zdebski said.
“Part of what we look at with these High School Football Showcases is a chance to introduce tomorrow’s college football stars,” Haubert said. And viewers are expected to get exactly that.
“Both programs are excited. Both coaches are excited,” Palmer said. “The state of Arizona is excited.”