Chandler athletes overcome adversity to sign with colleges

The coronavirus pandemic took its toll on the entire high school sports landscape this year, forcing cancellations, team quarantines and a shortened fall season.

The pandemic also took its toll on recruiting as players who would normally visit college campuses on weekend trips were forced to do so virtually. Division I and II college coaches, who would typically be seen on sidelines in the fall and making home visits to prospective players haven’t been able to do so since March. Division III coaches just recently started making their rounds to Arizona schools.

Nonetheless, East Valley senior athletes once again overcame another bout with adversity this year to sign their National Letter of Intent.

“I can’t wait at this point,” Chandler senior quarterback Mikey Keene said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment my entire life, just to be able to get to the next step. I cherish what I had here at Chandler High School but it’s time for me to move on and for the next quarterback to step in. I’m excited to see what happens for myself at Central Florida.”

Keene signed his National Letter of Intent to continue his football career at the University of Central Florida alongside nine of his teammates on Wednesday, Dec. 16. Several other Chandler seniors plan to sign in February.

Like most of his teammates, the recruiting cycle was difficult for Keene. The NCAA in March extended its recruiting dead period due to the pandemic. Since then, it’s been extended through the end of December. The dead period prohibited college coaches from interacting with recruits in person. It also meant athletes like Keene were unable to take official visits.

For many, that was arguably the most difficult part of this year’s recruiting cycle.

“It was extremely difficult,” Skyline senior defensive back Zeke Branham said. “Going on visits is the biggest part to get a feel for the atmosphere. A lot of it this year was all word of mouth, but I think I made the right decision. It was down to the last five until the final night, really. I wanted it to be a surprise for everyone and I think I made the right decision.”

Branham kept his decision to sign with Fresno State under wraps from everyone, including his parents. To him, having a surprise announcement was one of the ways to make this abnormal year feel normal.

The only communication he was able to have with coaches was via virtual meetings. He also toured the Fresno State campus virtually. Nonetheless, he felt as if he made the right decision.

Higley senior quarterback Kai Millner is among those athletes who were lucky enough to visit college campuses before the pandemic hit.

Millner, who signed with the University of California — Berkeley on Wednesday, had his mind set on the Bears in April. He was able to take most of his official visits during and shortly after his junior season and while he wasn’t able to visit other schools that offered after the pandemic had hit, he said it wouldn’t have altered his decision.

“We had a lot more visits planned but I feel like at the end of the day I felt like I didn’t really need all of that. I was fully committed to Cal,” Millner said. “It really is a dream come true. I’ve been working at it for as long as I can remember. For the day to finally come, to finally sign and make it official, it’s an amazing feeling.”

Unlike Millner, Mountain Pointe senior defensive back Jaden Crockett had to get creative with his recruitment. He received his scholarship offer from South Dakota State on Friday, Oct. 9 shortly after the Pride played Centennial.

The next weekend, he and his parents visited the campus in Brookings. They walked around on their own without the help of a guide or any of the coaches. They visited athletic facilities and saw as much as they could. It wasn’t a traditional visit by any means, but it still made a significant impact on Crockett. He knew it was where he wanted to be. On Wednesday, he signed with the Jackrabbits.

“It was difficult to get a feel for the program and school when you can’t really see that in person,” Crockett said. “But just being there when I could, it felt great. The coaches were great to me on FaceTime. I’m excited.”

Crockett’s teammate, offensive tackle Zereoue Williams, based most of his college decision on academic programs.

An aspiring software engineer, Williams decided to pursue his degree and continue his football career at the University of Utah. Similar to most of the other athletes, Williams wasn’t able to visit campus before Signing Day. But he met several times with coaches and players via Zoom and knew it was the right fit for him both athletically and academically.

“Utah has a lot of opportunities for me,” Williams said. “They have a great coaching staff and programs I want to study. I guess I wasn’t as immersed in the feeling of being recruited because I wasn’t face-to-face. But I still felt like I belonged at Utah.”

While not easy by any means, the group of early signees found ways to make it work. They faced adversity all year to just play the game they love and continue to overcome everything in their way.

“At times like this you have to look at the bigger picture and be grateful for what you have,” Keene said. “I’m headed to a place I think is the perfect fit for me. It’s my dream school, honestly. I can’t wait to get to Central Florida.”

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.