By Jason Hickman
MaxPreps 2006 National Coach of the Year
Chad DeGrenier, Cactus Shadows High, Cave Creek, Ariz.
Chad DeGrenier was named the head coach at Cactus Shadows High in Cave Creek, Ariz., prior to the 2004 season. The appointment marked his first head coaching position at any level.
It's safe to say that the former Arena League quarterback didn't have the debut he was hoping for. Cactus Shadows went 0-10 that season, giving up an average of 52.5 points per game.
But the Falcons, under the direction of DeGrenier, improved to 5-6 in 2005, and this season, the school did something that nobody would have envisioned possible just two years removed from a winless campaign.
DeGrenier guided Cactus Shadows to Arizona's Class 4A Division II title, finishing unbeaten, and becoming the first state team to win 15 games in a season. The third-year mentor was subsequently named the Arizona Republic's state Coach of the Year.
The worst-to-first turnaround also earned him MaxPreps' 2006 National Coach of the Year honor.
"It's awesome, I get goose bumps just hearing that," DeGrenier said.
Prior to DeGrenier's appointment in 2004, Falcon football wasn't a focal point in Cave Creek, a community of around 4,000 residents north of Phoenix.
"I took the job here after teaching in the district for six years, and playing for the Rattlers (Arizona's Arena League franchise)," DeGrenier said. "We were somewhat of a doormat in football. It wasn't something there was a lot of pride in.
"We wanted to fill up the stands and make it a community event. I told the kids they could win a state championship. I wanted to put big dreams in the kids' hearts, and just get better everyday."
Those dreams met reality in 2004, with a heartbreaking, 17-14, loss in the season-opener against Sinagua, then a 61-7 blowout loss to Sunnyslope in week two. In terms of wins and losses, it didn't get any better after that.
"I didn't think we would go 0-10 in my first year," DeGrenier admitted. "I thought we would get a few wins, but we started 16 sophomores and we were young. It was very difficult."
Any doubt that may have crept in about his ability to lead the Falcons was eased by a trusted aide. Jack DeGrenier, Chad's father, high school football coach at Scottsdale Christian, and a member of the Cactus Shadows' staff, was there every step of the way.
"The words of wisdom, just saying, `Hey, you are doing the right things,' when you doubt yourself, that was big," DeGrenier said. "He helped me be a better leader."
Jack's presence made the 28-14 win over Higley for the state title Dec. 2 that much more special.
"Giving him a hug after we won it, words can't even express how it felt," DeGrenier said. "He coached me in high school and we tied for a state title, so to win it was kind of bringing it back full circle."
Before this story takes on the feel of a "Rocky" sequel, make no mistake, Cactus Shadows was no underdog in 2006. The Falcons were dominant.
Opening with a 55-6 win over Kellis, the 4A champions went on to beat opponents by an average score of 36-8, and played just one game decided by 10 points or less.
The Falcon offense, which averaged fewer than 20 points per game during the winless 2004 campaign, produced a 3,500-yard passer (Phillip Aholt), a 1,600-yard rusher (Eric Gorriaz), and a 1,500-yard receiver (Kyle Watkins).
"The first year, once they started to understand the system as sophomores, we averaged around 25 points in our last four games," DeGrenier, who serves as the team's offensive coordinator, said. "Last year they really started to get it and just kept getting better."
Not to be outdone, the Cactus Shadows' defense, under the direction of coordinator Matt Bradshaw, shutout four opponents and held eight of 15 to single digits.
"Our defense is a bunch of blue collar, great guys that just do their job," DeGrenier said. "Sean January is a senior that stepped to the forefront and did a great job for us."
MaxPreps' 2006 National Coach of the Year hopes the Falcons' remarkable turnaround story will serve the student-athletes in his charge well beyond their high school careers.
"These kids have gone from the bottom to the top and know what it takes. I really think we have a group of seniors that will be successful in life. Football teaches that more than any other sport. You can't do it alone."