CLOSE

Mike Chiurco navigated Seton to 6-1 record as interim head football coach
Richard Obert, azcentral sports

They’re given “interim” tags, but to their high school football players, they’re more than that. They’re leaders presenting hope in their lives every time they take the field.

Chandler Seton Catholic needed a new leader after spring ball ended in late May when Gary Galante stepped down to take a position as an assistant coach at Phoenix Barry Goldwater.

Seton had an interim, then didn’t have one, before a guy wondering where his NFL job would land him stepped up.

Mike Chiurco, who was part of Bruce Arians’ staff in his five seasons leading the Arizona Cardinals, said yes to Principal Victor Serna when the proposition “came out of nowhere.”

They were acquaintances through their wives, who work together at St. Mary’s-Basha, a K-8 school in Chandler.

“That was a big concern for us,” Seton senior wide receiver/safety Mike Kenney said of the program being in limbo after Galante left. “(Chiurco) has done a tremendous job filling in. He’s made people want to play.”

With a squad of about 45 players, and despite losing top running back Nick Wade, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament in a preseason scrimmage, the Sentinels are 6-1 heading into Friday’s game at home against Flagstaff.

In-season change at Prescott

One game into its season, Prescott head coach Mike Gilpin was place on leave, while the school investigated an incident between an assistant coach and a player on the team.

Assistant coach Cody Collett, who once led the Prescott program, led the Badgers to a victory over Phoenix Moon Valley before he was named the interim head coach, after Gilpin resigned the next week.

“Taking over after one game was not a great situation,” Collett said. “We have tried to stress taking everything one day at a time, one rep at a time.”

The players bought in, and led by senior quarterback Austin Clark and senior defensive back Colton Amos, the Badgers are 5-2 and the only team that hasn’t lost a 4A Grand Canyon Region game.

Post-game incident led to interim at Central

After a 55-0 loss to Maricopa, Phoenix Central coach Jon Clanton was placed on leave by the Phoenix Union High School District for the post-game handshake with Maricopa coach Brandon Sanders that got so heated that the district investigated the incident.

Clanton hasn’t been back with the team since, while 24-year-old Chandler Hovik, the offensive coordinator, has led the Bobcats through a season of adversity as the interim coach.

Before the season, Central lost two key skill-position players who transferred. In July, its top two Division I-recruited players, defensive linemen twins Cosmas and Eloi Kwete, were talked into staying by Clanton after they were ready to transfer to Glendale Mountain Ridge.

Following a 21-0 loss to Laveen Fairfax, Central won its first game of the season and the first in Hovik’s career, beating Phoenix Camelback 44-12 with Cosmas Kwete rushing for two touchdowns.

“When I took over as the interim, we were 0-5 and not many things were going our way,” Hovik said. “The most difficult part of taking over is trying to get rid of the players’ bad habits.

“The way we practice and the way we act as men away from the football field had to improve in order to have some success. We have had to get back to the basics and hit the reset button to get everyone refocused. Holding players accountable for their actions and behavior is huge when trying to change the atmosphere of the program.”

Back to coaching roots

Before becoming an NFL scout with the Indianapolis Colts and developing a relationship with Arians, Chiurco coached high school football for 14 years in Ohio.

This was nothing new, taking over at Seton. But he didn’t know the players. And he needed time to incorporate his philosophies.

“When this all happened, they knew I wasn’t with the Cardinals anymore,” Chiurco said. “I was just hanging out and they called me. Originally, they had a guy and wanted to know if I would come in just to help. I told them I would. A couple of days later, they just asked if I’d be willing to take it (the interim head coaching position).”

Chiurco still waits for an NFL call, which more realistically would come in February at the soonest. But he is enjoying working at Seton, where he runs weight-lifting classes, before leading football practices.

He said the stuff he learned from Arians over the course of 20 years have been valuable.

“Really, it’s managing stuff,” Chiurco said. “Situations are different from the NFL to the high school. But some of them are (similar). It’s how you handle certain situations.”

Players picked each other up after Wade went down with an injury a week before Seton’s season opener. Wade had rushed for 1,257 yards and 13 TDs last season when the Sentinels went 9-3.

“It was a huge blow,” Chiurco said.

Junior Keyshon Upchurch, who transferred in at the beginning of the year, filled the void, along with dual-threat quarterback Vincent Wallace.

Upchurch has rushed for 550 yards and eight TDs and Wallace 510 yards and six TDs. Wallace’s 1,500 yards and 15 TDs passing have helped, as well.

Chiurco has learned to prioritize teaching moments with teenagers.

“One of them is making sure you’re teaching kids the right things,” he said. “It’s not necessarily about wins and losses, but about being good people.”

Seniors taking charge

Collett was head coach at Prescott from 2012-15, having winning records in each of his four seasons.

He returned last year to be tight ends coach under Gilpin.

Then, when things got divisive after the season opener, it was natural for Prescott to turn to Collett to keep the Badgers together.

“I think he has gotten us closer as a family,” Amos said. “He has kept practices crisp. I’m not too surprised at what we’ve been doing. We knew he would step in and lead us.”

They’ve been strong through everything and has become one of the surprising stories in Arizona high school football behind Clark, who has 627 passing yards and 1,185 rushing yards with a total of 19 touchdowns. Amos last week became Prescott’s all-time leader for tackles.

“Prescott has always had great kids and that helped a ton,” Collett said. “We have a great group of kids that enjoy playing together. Our kids have really kept practice at a great pace, which makes it enjoyable for everyone. We have some tough games left and we are going to continue taking everything one day at a time.”

‘The energy is up’

Cosmas Kwete, who only played rugby before he and his brother moved from a refugee camp in Africa and began high school, said Hovik has been a calming influence.

“He tells us to keep our heads up,” Kwete said “The energy is up.”

Hovik, a former quarterback who passed for 2,159 yards and 25 TDs his senior season at Laveen Cesar Chavez in 2012, learned much from seven-time state championship coach Jim Rattay during his high school career.

Rattay was there for Hovik after he won his first game as a coach.

Hovik said he has noticed an extra pep in the players’ steps the last three weeks, despite going 1-2 during that time.

“When you are dealt a difficult hand, you can’t make excuses,” Hovik said. “You’ve got to make the most of the opportunity and don’t try to be something you’re not.

“I have had great support from our administration, coaching staff and players. I’ll never forget after my first practice as interim head coach a couple seniors pulled me aside and let me know this is the most excited they’ve ever been about playing football at Central High School.

“No matter our record, my coaching staff and I will continue to give everything we have to these boys so they can remember their high school football days forever.”

To suggest human-interest story ideas and other news, reach Obert at richard.obert@arizonarepublic.com or 602-316-8827. Follow him at twitter.com/azc_obert.

MORE HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS