Hamilton Is Highest
The hire of Steve Belles turned Hamilton High School from a state championship contender to a national powerhouse.
John Wrenn’s time at Hamilton High School began in an abandoned ballpark and playing in the deepest nether regions of the state of Arizona.
Eight seasons and two state championships later, the only man who had ever coached the Huskies decided it was time. He made the move to the college ranks, accepting a position under then-head coach Dirk Koetter to be the running backs coach at Arizona State.
“For me, it was a situation where I had built this program, and I had built a program in Illinois the same way where, we win, we’re very successful and then we won state and I guess I kind of lost some of my enthusiasm,” Wrenn said. “I had reached my goals at that point in time. It’s the same thing with Hamilton. I had won state there and been very, very successful but when I walked into that program I told them when I first walked in that we were going to win a national championship, we were going to win state and well we did that and we did that stuff, or at least we got very close.
“I was getting tired because, to me, I had accomplished most of the goals that I had wanted to at Hamilton, and I was very fortunate to get the opportunity [to go to Arizona State]. I didn’t look for a job, but [Arizona State coach Dirk] Koetter called me and asked me if I would be interested in interviewing for a job in that point in time. My family, my son and my daughter had graduated from college and were growing and growing, so I thought it was a perfect time for me to go to Arizona State and try something new. No regrets whatsoever. I was ready to go, and I had done what I wanted to.”
Wrenn’s accomplishments in a short time at the school were unprecedented, taking a program that was nonexistent and turning it into a state champion within five years. He won 91 games in eight seasons, making the state championship game four times and winning twice.
His second state title, in 2004, capped off back-to-back championships with a 31–7 win over Glendale Mountain Ridge.
Little did anyone know the man standing on the other sideline that evening at Sun Devil Stadium that night would eventually come to replace him.
Steve Belles, himself of a championship background both as a player at Phoenix St. Mary’s and in college at Notre Dame, wasn’t sure what to expect when he first sat down for an interview at Hamilton High School.
“[When I got hired,] it wasn’t so much difficult to step in as the fact of, ‘Let’s see if there is an opportunity,’” Belles recalled. “It was more about if I’m a fit for Hamilton rather than vice versa. It winded up that the interview process was in the room next door [to the conference room at Hamilton High School], actually. It always seemed like a program that, no matter what, like I said from the outside it seemed like they have everything going in the right direction. When you got here, you knew it was.”
With the new coach also came a transition within the coaching staff. While much of the Wrenn-era staff remained on campus, some changes had to be made. Some position coaches didn’t mesh and left to take other jobs, Belles said. Longtime offensive coordinator Deke Schutes moved to coach the junior varsity for a season before reclaiming his former role.
“High school’s a little different than a college,” Belles said. “When it’s a college program, you kind of bring in your own guys. When it’s a high school program, you want to take advantage of the coaches you have here that is a fit for you.
“What’s kind of interesting with coach [Deke] Schutes is I don’t think he understood that when I came in, I liked a lot of what Hamilton was doing offensively and we blended a lot of what I had done at Mountain Ridge High School with the Hamilton offense. That first year, he coached [junior varsity] and that’s where he kind of wanted to be. I think he realized that I was trying to blend both offenses together and he came up the next year. The following year, we decided we were going to do the offense together, so it was a process of getting to know guys. In terms of the guys here, the guys on the staff were quality coaches as well. It wasn’t like I was taking a risk or anything like that. These guys were good coaches, and if you’re doing things right as a coach, you’re going to keep good people on staff.”
Schutes quickly recognized Belles’ vision for the program, and any acquiescence he may have had for rejoining the varsity was invisible as the two combined to torch the state.
“I would say one thing I have a lot of respect for Steve for is it’s tough for a football coach to recognize that what somebody else is doing is a pretty good way of doing it,” Schutes said. “Steve was smart enough to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to be the head coach, but I’m not going to come in and let my ego get in the way and say we have to do everything my way.’ He brought in a couple coaches, but he left the defensive staff intact. He said, ‘Hey, I really like what we do on offense. Here’s maybe a couple things we can add to it, but let’s keep what we’re doing.’ That’s what’s hard. Coaches, sometimes we have we had an ego and you want to say that what I do is best, but he recognized that it was already set in place and he just added a few things here and there and let’s keep this thing rolling. I think that’s what he’s done. That’s the smartest thing [he’s done].”
In his first season on campus, Belles took the Huskies machine and took it to a 13–1 record and a state title, defeating Mesa Mountain View, 34–15, in the state championship game.
After failing to make a return trip in 2007, Belles set his sights on more than just returning to the state championship podium. He wanted to turn Hamilton into a national power, playing some of the most elite programs in the country with the hopes of creating a national Hamilton brand.
“I think at the national level, we have played the Masslands, the Booker T. Washingtons, the Bishop Gormans, but you have to be careful in playing those games, too,” Belles said. “You have to make sure that you’re prepared and have a team qualified [to win].”
They took care of business in Arizona as well. After dropping their season opener in 2008, Belles’ program began an unprecedented stretch.
They wouldn’t lose another game until 2011, a 45–19 loss the Desert Vista in the state championship game. That 53-game stretch remains the longest win streak in Arizona high school football history, with the program winning three consecutive titles from 2008–10.
“I don’t think the streak was something we ever really talked about. I think those teams went out on the field expecting to win, and they were prepared to win,” Belles said. “I don’t think the streak was that big of a deal in terms of when we were going through it, because it’s not something we ever really talked about. Looking back on it, it’s pretty remarkable now, because it’s so hard to do at the highest level. It’s a lot tougher than people think. But in terms of worry about it, we just took it one game at a time and that was our approach to it. I had never been in that situation.
“I had started a streak when we were at St. Mary’s High School and we had won nine and then they ended up with 29, which was kind of a big deal back then, but 53 games, I don’t think anybody envisioned us doing that. That was a 13–1 team the first year, then 14–0 and a 15–0 team. It was quite remarkable, the streak going on at that time and then a few more the next year when we went 13–1 and eventually lost in the state championship. I think Kendyl Taylor went 49–1 his four years at Hamilton. I don’t know if anybody will have that type of [career], going from his freshman year and he started as a sophomore for us to his senior year. 49–1 is pretty remarkable.”
It was not the only record Belles would smash along the way.
When in the midst of the streak, the 2009 Huskies offense would become one of the most dynamic in state history. They set records that would still stand today, putting up a record 650 points and 6,625 yards of total offense over 14 games.
“I think it really balances teams out,” Belles said of the offensive philosophy. “You have to play disciplined football when you’re playing against Hamilton. [Veer and option] is just a small part of what we do. There’s a culture at Hamilton and I think people perceive us to be an option team, and we only run it three, four times, five times a game, but when we do it, it makes you play balanced football. We’re kind of that [multiple] offense, but it’s been an effective offense. Each year, we’re averaging 40 points a game. It was something where, if it isn’t broken, we’re not going to start breaking it and breaking it down. Now, we’re always looking for new ideas, but the heart and soul of where Hamilton football is is smash mouth football. When it comes down to it, if you can’t do that, you’re not going to win a state championship.”
The key to the scheme is the offensive line, allowing gaping holes for the steady collection of backs such as Kendyl Taylor, Zach Bauman and others to run through and dominating the line of scrimmage. Several big-name offensive linemen have worn the maroon and silver in recent years, including Christian Westerman, Tyler Johnstone and Casey Tucker.
“Well, we’ve had some really great offensive coaches, and offensive line coaches,” Schutes said. “We’ve been fortunate that the kids have wanted to play at Hamilton, and like I tell everybody. If you have a guy like Tyler Johnstone and you develop him, he already has the size and athletic ability. You just have to try to keep working them and then developing them. You can’t make someone a draftable kid or a Division I player if they’re 5-foot-9, 200 pounds. You have to have some talent, but I believe the one thing we’ve been able to do is identify that.
“Tyler Johnstone wanted to be a quarterback. His freshman year, he went out for quarterback. We thought he was a decent quarterback and had enough athletic ability, but with his long arms and the way he’s built, he was a Division I offensive tackle. He looked at us like we were crazy. ‘Offensive tackle?’ After a year or two, he bought into it and by the middle of his junior year he finally said, ‘Hey, you know what? These coaches know what they’re talking about.’ He started getting after it, and that’s when all those offers came in and he of course probably would have been a first, second or third-rounder if he hadn’t had those two knee injuries. Christian [Westerman] is a kid where, I think his ability was there but teaching him the technique and things like that, that was what we got done. If you coach at the high school level, every coach out there is a good coach. They know how to develop and how to do things, I feel like. We were very fortunate to have a principal that allowed us to have a sixth-hour football class and allowed a lot of coaches to be in that class where we can basically work with them year-round. Like I tell my kids, if you’re a painter and you only paint three months a year, you’re not going to be a very good painter. If you’re a painter and you paint 12 months a year or if you’re a football player and you play 12 months a year, not only just lifting but you go out on the field and practice your craft, you’re going to be pretty good at it if you have some ability. That’s where we’ve been fortunate, we’ve been able to have our kids year-round.”
Even after the loss in 2011, a refocused Hamilton program rallied to a state title after a 12–2 2012 campaign and two more state title berths in 2013 and 2014 that ended in losses to Mountain Pointe, and cross-town rivals Chandler, respectively. A state quarterfinal loss to Desert Ridge in 2015 snapped a seven-year streak of Hamilton making it to the state championship and was just the second time in the Steve Belles era the program had not made it that far.
“Seven straight, I mean no other program in the state does that,” Arizona Republic high school columnist Scott Bordow said. “It’s just a testament to everything: to the coaches, to the administration, to the fact that it’s become a destination school. Saguaro has won more titles recently at a lower level, but I think Hamilton’s been the most dominant program in the state over the last 10 years.”
It’s an amount of progress that has left an impression on the program’s originator.
“When Steve [Belles] took it over, I told them during the interview process that Steve would be a great person for that job and the guy has done a better job,” Wrenn said. “He has gone and continued to build that stuff. Who knows what would have happened if I would have stayed? It’s just been wonderful, and I’m very, very proud of him.”
Jim Ewan, who was the head coach at Chandler High School when Belles took over at Hamilton, also took notice.
“Obviously people are going to have their opinions one way or another, but I think that when Steve took over, first of all it wasn’t an easy situation to come in,” Ewan said. “Yeah, he walked into a winning situation, but there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of the expectations that maybe weren’t realistic. I think he elevated the program. I think Steve took Hamilton to levels even above where they were under coach [John] Wrenn. I think what Steve accomplished was even more impressive than what they did at first under John, to be honest. To walk into that, they didn’t miss a beat and he went and made them even better. I think he improved the situation.”
Added former running back Tyrell Smith, who was a senior during the 2013 season: “I think he’s done a good job at just continuing tradition. He went -0 or something at some point and kept the teams winning all the way up until my sophomore year when they had my first loss against Desert Vista in the championship. I feel like even after that, we still stuck with the tradition. The tradition is still strong, and they definitely enforce it over there. These other schools have just gotten more talent coming in, too, so it’s a lot more competitive now.”
Thanks to the accomplishments of Wrenn and the continued advancement by Belles, the Hamilton program has established itself as one of, if not the best, program in Arizona high school football history.
“I mean, at Hamilton you always have a target on your back,” former linebacker Santana Sterling said. “It’s a team everyone marks on their calendar who they want to play, who they want to beat and knock off. The national attention, in regards to putting a bigger target on our back, it just in a way added more fuel to the fire. People just doubted us and [questioned] why we were going to Ireland. [They’d think] ‘They think they’re the best team in the country’ or whatever they’d say, it’d just light the fuel to your fire.”
Added former Hamilton quarterback Sam Sasso: “[We expect] a championship every year, so if you don’t win a championship it’s kind of a failure. So they kind of instill that on you your freshman year and that just kind of sits with you and your mindset as you go through the program.”