Sophomore quarterback Matt Purnell starts his first day at a new school on Monday.
Purnell’s move from Mesa Desert Ridge to Gilbert Higley is the fourth football transfer from Desert Ridge since last summer, when highly recruited sophomore defensive end and basketball player Jason Harris made the move.
In all, Higley football coach Eddy Zubey said he anticipates 11 transfers since last season, when the Knights had their deepest playoff run under Zubey. Higley reached the 4A semifinals, taking Scottsdale Saguaro into overtime before losing.
“The joke around here is that they’re ‘Desert Ridge South,’ ” Desert Ridge coach Jeremy Hathcock said.
Purnell will likely have to find another position to play or wait until his senior season to play quarterback at Higley, because 6-foot-4, 190-pound Spencer Brasch returns for his senior year after an exceptional junior season. Brasch passed for 1,942 yards and 33 touchdowns with only five interceptions, completing 62 percent of his passes.
Purnell started at quarterback his freshman year on varsity at Desert Ridge. He ended up splitting time at quarterback last season with junior Cooper Schmidt. Purnell passed for 1,167 yards and seven TDs with six interceptions, completing 67 of 97 passes, last season.
Brasch has Idaho and Northern Arizona offers so far.
“Spencer is our guy,” Zubey said. “I told (Purnell) that. He’ll have the ability to play another position. It’s an open competition after this year. Our goal is to always play the best 11. If he happens to be one of the best wide receivers or defensive backs … He might want to just play quarterback. All of our kids have the ability to play both ways.”
Zubey said a running back from Illinois, a lineman from Michigan and a wide receiver (Draycen Hall’s cousin) from Utah are joining his program, not to mention two players from Chandler Basha, one from Gilbert American Leadership Academy and two from Apache Junction (both of whom did not play football last year, Zubey added).
Higley is moving up to 5A next school year, so now any run to a state championship will have to go through Peoria Centennial.
The Desert Ridge pipeline to Higley began with Harris, who has 17 major college football offers and also is a top basketball recruit.
Harris didn’t play football last season, after undergoing shoulder surgery. That hasn’t slowed down his college football offers.
Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Eastman, who had 26 catches for 331 yards and averaged 15 yards a punt return on Desert Ridge’s varsity last season, has transferred to Higley, along with sophomore Brail Lipford, who started at cornerback for Desert Ridge’s varsity last season.
“I’m OK with kids coming and going,” Hathcock said in a text message. “It’s the way it is, unfortunately. However, the thing is, people who openly recruit (not incoming frosh), it can really hurt the future of those programs that kids leave from. While schools like Higley are doing this ‘openly,’ they then tell the story that we have a hard time winning with our local area kids. Coaches put so much time in those kids then they just up and leave. It’s a sad day when the team doesn’t mean as much as the individual.”
Zubey said there has been no recruiting.
“The coach is understandably upset at losing amazing young men but he is grossly mistaken on recruiting allegations and perhaps people should ask the people moving the real reasons they are leaving,” Zubey said via text. “It’s far different than what he’s saying. Parents and players are educated and make decisions they feel are in their best interest.”
Sean Harris, Jason’s father, who was an All-American linebacker at the University of Arizona, said he reached out to Zubey last summer.
“Zubey did not recruit Jason,” Sean Harris said. “That’s 100 percent the truth. I knew Zubey from (Tempe) McClintock (when they were both assistant coaches). I like Higley, the academics there. There was no recruiting.”