Quiet no more – Kellis enjoys time in spotlight

The Kellis Cougars baseball team celebrates after their 10-5 win over Campo Verde in a 5A championship game May 16 at Tempe Diablo Stadium. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

A blog by Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

In slightly more than a decade, there has been little — if anything — “wrong” at Kellis High School or with its athletic programs.

Yet in that time, the school and its teams have largely operated under the radar — at least until Tuesday night.  Statewide, the focus remains the Southeast Valley, then Scottsdale, then greater Tucson.

Richard Smith

When Arizona media does get around to West Valley high schools and sports, the spotlight often lands on the Peoria Unified School District. But even closer to home Kellis tends to get less attention than much of its PUSD brethren. We journalist as a breed tend to like easy hooks — and when it comes to sports, the Cougars’ neighbors tend to have easier hooks.

Centennial, its football team in particular, gets the majority of the ink and type. Liberty is the district’s newest high school, arriving in 2006 — two years after Kellis — and boasts the most balanced overall athletic program.

Also in North Peoria, Sunrise Mountain is an annual baseball and softball contender and is at a high point for football and volleyball and a year removed from a boys basketball final four. Cactus and Peoria have such rich traditions — in and out of football — that they receive publicity every time a team wakes up the echoes.

That leaves Ironwood and Kellis as the “quiet” PUSD athlete programs. But in the Cougars’ case things probably were too silent for too long.

For example, the 5A state baseball title was not the school’s first. It wasn’t even the second, like I briefly believed. It was Kellis’ fourth team title.

“Our school does a lot of great stuff and has a lot to be proud of. But it kind of goes overlooked because it’s normal school functions. To do this on a huge stage where everyone in the state can see it — it’s great for them and it’s great for the exposure of our kids. We’ve got an amazing school. You saw our crowd and how awesome it was. We support each other. It’s a big community and makes it just that more special,” Kellis baseball coach Michael Deardoff said.

Part of this is directly my fault. Since our papers did not go to south Glendale and Peoria, I never covered the Cougars until 2015-16, except for bumping into their teams at a big boys basketball showdown with Peoria or softball game at Sunrise Mountain.

It wasn’t that I didn’t try. From 2010 through 2013 I argued West Valley Preps should add coverage of Kellis — along with Apollo, O’Connor and Greenway — with no luck. Then I stopped asking and we started delivering the paper to the area around the stadium district.

Here’s a brief history of Kellis — and what we missed:

The Kellis Cougars baseball team celebrates after their 10-5 win over Campo Verde in a 5A championship game May 16 at Tempe Diablo Stadium. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)

• Kellis is the common and informal name for the campus. It’s actually Raymond S. Kellis High School, in honor of the longtime PUSD superintendent. Unfortunately outside of Glendale and Peoria, people Google Kellis and get that “Milkshake,” song, contributing to the anonymity.

• Off the field the school is often defined by what opened nearby around the same time it did. The campus is just south of the Peoria-Glendale border and just north of University of Phoenix Stadium, Gila River Arena and Westgate. In the years of battles over the Tohono O’odham casino proposal one main argument against building it has been the casino’s proximity to the campus, which is west by one block.

• Like all PUSD high Schools, Kellis recently received an “A” rating. There are a wide range of statistics and ratings on Kellis and other public schools and you’re free to peruse them like I did but in general, two things stand out. Like all PUSD schools graduation rates are high, hovering in the mid 90s percentage-wise. And like neighboring Peoria High the student body is very diverse.

• Two of the three other titles came very early in the school’s life cycle.  Boys soccer won in 2008-09, the school’s first with a senior class on campus. Girls basketball took home the crown the next year. Boys track took home the championship. in 2013.

• Even with the teams that claimed a state title, success was fleeting. Soccer had one more run and dropped back. Girls basketball moved up from 4AII to 4AI after its title and won a round. Track has been solid in recent years but never contended for another title.

• Other notable teams followed a similar pattern. Led by a bumper crop of talent, boys basketball reached semifinals in 2011 and 2012. Softball was in the final eight in 2013 and 2014. But once that well dried, both went back to the pack. Again girls track — runners up in 2008 and 2009 — has been more consistently successful. Football started to turn the corner last year.

So it’s fitting that the school’s most steady program shined on the biggest stage yet. Coach Michael Deardoff led the Cougars to the playoffs in six of his first eight years and — as in too many other cases with this school — few people outside the Kellis community noticed. That’s because the program’s first playoff win came a year ago.

So before this magical May, most of the attention paid to Kellis baseball went to the singular talent of Tyler Williams, now a sophomore outfielder at ASU, as well as brothers Justin and Jonathan.

Entering the playoffs, no one was talking about this group, again because it was almost too steady — Kellis was the No. 13 seed in 5A/Division II for the third straight year for goodness sakes.

Instead the local focus was on district rival and top seed Liberty’s revival under new coach Chris Raymond, Mountain Ridge trying to get back to the final and win it in Lance Billingsley’s last year, Sunrise Mountain beating the nation’s No. 1 team and trying to get a ring one for 400-win coach Eric Gardner, and Joy Christian staying together and entering the postseason 27-1.

That started to change April 29 when the Cougars blew out Verrado 11-1, after the Vipers spent most of the year ranked No. 1 in 5A. Then they knocked off a Mesquite team that won state in 2015.

Suddenly, Kellis had another crack at Liberty and took out the favorites with 7-2 and 2-1 victories. I saw the second game and it was a snapshot of the best of high school sports: Two teams full of kids that had played with each other in club sports turned rivals for their school teams. Two teams full of passion and competitive fire. And two teams that had, for this year at least, mastered the concept of what it means to be a team forming a special bond that usually beats a group of talented individuals.

“Honestly what the (previous) teams didn’t have as much is a family, a community. I know that sounds cliche but it’s honestly very true. Everyone’s  equal and everyone loves each other. It’s been an honor to be a part of these guys,” senior catcher Nate Young said.

That win over Liberty determined the state title (no offense to Campo Verde). And with the trophy in its sights the Cougars did not let up.

The Cougar community also was out in force at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Their celebration started in the first inning and echoed after the final out.

This program’s consistency and the presence of three juniors and two sophomores in the starting lineup should allow Kellis baseball to avoid the championship hangover of previous teams.

Right now, everyone associated with the school and its baseball team is just enjoying the history made, the memories created — and Keliis’ long-deserved moment in the Arizona high school sports spotlight.

“It’s fun. We didn’t want our season to end. We liked playing with each other. These are all alumni here. We have that type of bond and our administration has been great,” Coach Deardoff said.

The Kellis Cougars baseball team celebrates after their 10-5 win over Campo Verde in a 5A championship game May 16, 2017 at Tempe Diablo Stadium. (Jacob Stanek/West Valley Preps)
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