By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
What the Cactus football program looks like without Larry Fetkenhier as coach — for the first time since 1983 — remains to be seen this fall.
But new coach Joseph Ortiz believes the players have bought in during the four-plus months he has worked with them. The former Higley offensive coordinator has blended the philosophies he learned at that emerging Gilbert football power with some of the Cobra traditions developed by a Hall of Fame coach.
Ortiz said he realized he and his staff had been accepted at the June 2 Universal Athletic Tournament in Peoria, which was the Cobras’ third 7-on-7 competition in three days. Yet, Cactus pushed past fatigue, went undefeated in pool play and were the smallest school to reach the final four, alongside West Valley heavyweights Centennial and Liberty.
“They were gassed but got to the final four. That’s when I knew these kids were on board,” Ortiz said.
Getting kids to buy in seemed like a daunting task in December. On Dec. 27 Fetkenhier announced his resignation after he was told school administrators wanted to go in a “different direction.”
Cactus conducted a coaching search in January while the Cobra community petitioned for the coach’s return. That seemed to die down when Fetkenhier gave no impression in interviews with local media that he wanted to come back.
Ortiz said he hesitated before applying, but in the end his rationale was simple.
“I felt I was ready to become a head coach. Being at Higley at the beginning with coach Zubey I learned how to run a program,” Ortiz said. “It was going to be one of the top openings in the state.”
Cactus hired him at the tail end of January and Ortiz was happy to take over the program in February.
He also realized he was walking into a hornet’s nest.
“99 percent of the kids bought in immediately,” Ortiz said. “The community and parents were split 50-50.”
The new coach knew his age, 32, and lack of head coaching experience would be negatives early in a community with deep and long-lasting Cobra football roots. However, he said, having played for St. Mary’s — one of the few Valley programs with an even deeper tradition — gave him a background in appreciating history.
He also grew up a bit down the road near Moon Valley High School and lived in the West Valley even while coaching at Higley.
“I’ll be honest with you, some parents haven’t bought in, but as long as they know I’m taking care of their kids, that’s okay,” Ortiz said.
It was easier for offensive players to get on board early, since Ortiz’s offenses at Higley averaged more than 50 points per game in the last two seasons.Junior quarterback Connor Cordts said his main worry was that a new coach would come in and want everybody to try out for roles on the squad.
Cordts said he grew up knowing of Fetkenhier’s reputation as a ‘quarterback whisperer.’ He wishes he had the chance to play last season when starting quarterback Mahal Lee was injured, but he was limited to six attempts in the Mingus game when Lee sustained the injury.
“I know he probably would have liked working with me,” Cordts said. “But I’m hoping that now I have a chance I can show everyone what I can do.”
There was more uncertainty on defense, until later in February, when coordinator Brian Belles returned. Belles was Fetkenhier’s defensive coordinator for 15 years, through 2016.
He left for the same role at Chandler Hamilton on the staff of his uncle, Steve Belles. But shortly after he arrived, Hamilton was embroiled in a player hazing scandal involving alleged sexual misconduct.
Steve Belles did not coach the 2017 Huskies, while Brian Belles stayed on the staff to help interim coach Dick Banizewski. But after the season, it was clear that Hamilton football and Brian Belles were going to move on.
In addition to providing a link to the past, Belles’ return provides a familiar voice for senior defensive leaders Matt Herrera and Rylee Williams. The linebacker and cornerback saw extensive playing time as sophomores in 2016.
“I’m liking everything that is happening right now. Change is good,” said Herrera, a linebacker.
Though Belles is older, the coaches’ shared St. Mary’s background helped them get to know each other.
Also, while Belles is not the only veteran of Cobra football still on the staff, he serves as a conduit of sorts between the eras and balancing force.
“It’s just a good fit. Me and him have become friends in a short time,” Ortiz said. “He’s been helping me realize what changes will be acceptable to the community and what won’t.”
Some things have changed. Ortiz wanted to bring several things he learned from Higley in terms of character building and connections with college recruiters.
And he ushered in an approach to the offseason more in tune with Higley and other name-brand schools. The Cobras had custom Under Armor 7-on-7 shirts and gave them plenty of use.
“Last year we really didn’t do any 7-on-7. This year they are the key to our summer,” Cordts said. “It’s really helped me with my reads. Now I know what I’m going to check to.”
Ortiz said kids are social media driven and the program now reflects that.“It’s a different type of energy we have. It’s upbeat and everyone is hyped,” Herrera said.
At the same time, Ortiz learned some of the reasons why Fetkenhier was so successful, the blue-collar nature of the kids and the values the coach helped instill in them.
“They are very hard working and respectful and that’s a tribute to Larry. I’ll be honest. It’s a different type of kid than Higley,” Ortiz said.