Casteel captures first state championship football title in school’s history

 

By winning the 2017 Division 3A Arizona state football championship, the Casteel High School football team in Queen Creek not only brought home a championship trophy, but they delivered hope, inspiration and joy to their principal who is fighting cancer.

Photo by Arianna Grainey

The team finished undefeated and became the first sport in the school’s young history to bring home a state title.

“It was a magical season for, not only the players and coaches, but the community and the school,” Head Coach Spencer Stowers said.

Winning the title in 2017 is even more amazing when one considers the school only just opened in 2015. Its first teams didn’t even compete at the varsity level until 2016-17 school year.

“We had some super close games, we had some blowouts,” said Gunner Cruz, the team’s junior quarterback who was named the 3A player of the year. “But I think our coach did a good job making sure we learned from every game in film and on the field.”

Because the school is so new and the team so young, there were no seniors. But that didn’t intimidate the team.

“We just kind of threw that out the window and were like ‘who cares if we don’t have any seniors? We haven’t had any seniors our whole time.’ This junior class has taken on that leadership role,” said Gunner.

Adding to the pressure of winning games, half-way through the season, the team got news that the school’s principal, Sandy Lundberg, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer.

“We had a little bit more of a driving force with Mrs. Lundberg and what she is going through right now,” Coach Stowers said. “It was a privilege to win a state championship for her.”

“She was a big motivator for us,” Gunner said. “I remember when Coach Stowers told us what was going on with her at practice. You could just feel the mood shift.”

The team was able to turn that sorrow into motivation and inspiration.

“We knew she wasn’t going to be feeling sorry for herself, so we’re not going to feel sorry for her. We decided we would just back her in whatever she’s doing and whatever she needs,” he said. “We’re going to be there for her.”

The team honored Ms. Lundberg by placing “SL” shields on the back of their helmets throughout the rest of the season, starting with the game against Show Low.

“We thought the ‘SL’ was for Show Low at first,” Gunner said of the first game when the team wore the shields. “We were like ‘what is Coach Stowers doing?’ Then we figured out what it was.”

The team started playing for the principal and brought her home the state trophy.

“She was so happy. You see her happy at school but it was different after the state game,” he said. “She was running around, gave us all hugs. She got the ball after the game.”

The team noticed how their wins throughout the season impacted Mrs. Lundberg, Gunner said.

“Sports could take her mind off (her cancer) of it a little bit,” he said.

The football team was the first team in the school’s history to bring home a state title.

“We have so many great athletic teams on our campus, and we kind of all have a competition going of ‘who’s going to win state first, who’s going to get there first,” Gunner said. “To finally be at the end and be 14-0 and realize that we beat anyone you put in front of us. It was super cool.”

The last few seconds of that title game was exciting for Athletic Director Ryan Ridenour was exciting.

“It’s that culminating feeling that all the time these kids put in and you’ve watched them sweat and grind and bleed,” he said.

“They did what they were supposed to do. And as they kneel on the last ball, knowing ‘what do we have to do next.’”

The season, though, was not without controversy. The athletic director said it was difficult to hear some opponents complain that Coach Stowers was running up the score.

“I think our coaches and administration did a fantastic job. They’ve always had our best interests for us. I know

Coach Stowers was putting us in the best situation to make that playoff run,” the athletic director said.

Ridenour said the season was a challenge for that reason.

“It was hard to keep our kids fresh and get them the reps that they needed when our opponents might have been inferior,” he said. ‘

“But it wasn’t fair for our kids to not get the reps, so it was a really hard mix and lots of hard conversations at times.”

Coach Stowers said that was the hardest part of the year.

“I’ve coached for a long time now and the challenging part this year was that there was such a different level in competition on different weeks,” Stowers said.

“It wasn’t easy. We always felt like if there was a team that was physically able to compete against us, we took every opportunity that we could to get better. If there were teams that physically could not, in the second half we would pull guys back. But our focus was on our team and our players getting better.”

Gunner said the team was not intentionally running up the score during the games.

“Internally, we knew our team wasn’t trying to have bad sportsmanship,” he said. “We were just trying to win the game and get better and get those live games reps.”

Next year the team will be moving up 2 divisions to 5A.

The school is jumping to 5A because of enrollment. Right now they have 1,300 students; next year the school will be right around the 1,700 mark.

The championship win motivates the team in a different way.

“Last year they were motivated to win a state championship,” Coach Stowers said.

“Now they’re motivated to put Casteel on the map in 5A. And that is going to make them work even harder and not get complacent. And we’re going to be better for it.”

“These kids get to go live it at another level,” Ridenour said. “And really go show-case their talents. And we’re going to give them that opportunity.”

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