Marana stands at 4-0, with the potential to go 5-0 for the first time since 1998, after the dominoes fell that led to former University of Houston and NFL player Phillip Steward becoming the Tigers’ first-year head coach.
“This is a lot of fun,” Steward said after he was asked Tuesday about being a head coach for the first time. “I’m having a blast.”
Marana, as a community, shares that feeling, bringing back the euphoria over the program for the first time since Trenton Bourguet led the Tigers to the state playoffs in 2018.
A capacity homecoming crowd is expected Friday when fellow unbeaten team Desert View (3-0) visits in what is one of the marquee matchups in the state.
“It could be high-scoring, good defense, lopsided … as long as we do our job we’ll be fine,” said captain Sam Brown, a wide receiver who is one of the top Class of 2023 prospects in Southern Arizona.
Brown’s confidence is symbolic of how Steward conducts himself around his team. Just by presence alone, Steward exudes an air of invincibility because of his 6-foot-1 and 235-pound frame, energy, knowledge of the game, effervescence and commanding presence when barking out assignments.
He is a former linebacker standout who played for Kevin Sumlin at Houston before being with the St. Louis Rams in 2013 and 2014 and playing in the CFL in 2015.
A native of Missouri City, Texas, akin to the highest level of high school football in Texas, Steward did not in his wildest thoughts five years ago think he would be a head coach in the Tucson area.
“I was still training; I didn’t think I was done playing yet,” said Steward, who in addition to attending preseason camp for the Saskatchewan Rough Riders in 2015 also was part of the now-defunct Fall Experimental Football League team in Miami.
Former Missouri City Hightower High School teammate Alonzo Highsmith Jr., an Arkansas standout who played in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Football Team, landed the head coaching job at Willcox in 2017. That was the first domino down that led to Steward coming to Arizona.
“He sent his application out everywhere in Arizona to get a job because he first went to college in Phoenix (at Phoenix College) and he has friends and family there,” Steward said.
Highsmith called Steward to join his coaching staff. Without much hesitation, Steward said, he joined his longtime friend with the Cowboy program. Second domino down.
“I looked at it as a good way to break into coaching working with Alonzo and helping young guys develop into good football players by teaching them,” he said. “I also ended up being the girls basketball coach and track coach there. That was all beneficial to my growth as a coach and a teacher.”
The next domino fell on a night Steward was invited to a card game at a friend’s house.
“This woman shows up and I was like, ‘I’ve never seen you in Willcox,'” Steward said.
That woman is Monique Cazares, a Willcox High School alum who was about to embark on her pharmaceutical studies at Arizona.
Cazares became a freshman at Arizona in 2020-21 and Steward came to Tucson with her and his 4-year-old daughter Annika. Monique is now his fiancée.
Highsmith left Willcox after the 2019 season to become the defensive coordinator at Phoenix North High School. Instead of trying to become the next head coach at Willcox, Steward decided to look for a position in Tucson to remain close to Cazares. The thought of commuting back-and-forth to Willcox, about a two-hour roundtrip drive southeast of Tucson, was not to his liking.
The next domino fell when Louie Ramirez, the head coach at Marana at the time, heard Steward was looking to land a coaching position.
“When I found that out, it was a no-brainer bringing him on board,” Ramirez said before the 2020 season. “The guys respect him a great deal because of his background and his coaching ability.”
Steward coached the outside linebackers and running backs for Marana last season.
This spring, Ramirez, who came to Marana in 2018 after serving as an assistant at Tempe Marcos de Niza and Gilbert Mesquite, was enticed to return to the Phoenix area to become an assistant coach at powerhouse Scottsdale Saguaro.
That was the last domino to fall for Steward becoming Marana’s 16th head coach in the program’s 70-year history.
He was hired on April 30.
“The transition was seamless (from Ramirez to Steward as head coach),” said prolific passer Elijah Joplin, another top local Class of 2023 prospect.
Joplin, who has completed 68 of 100 pass attempts for 1,021 yards with 10 touchdowns and one interception, added that the offensive system is the same with what Ramirez instituted.
Steward uses his defensive background to his advantage as the offensive play caller.
“I understand what makes the defense move,” he said. “It makes me calling the offense a little easier … I am a defensive guy and the way I call offense I am thinking for the defense. I understand defense and I understand what the offense has to do to make me move out of my spot because I played it.
“That’s what’s been helping me, and my coaching staff does a good job putting the game plan in and everything.”
Not too often has it occurred that two head coaches in Southern Arizona with a background of playing at the Division I level match wits against each other.
That will happen Friday when Robert Bonillas, a Nogales High School grad who played tight end and linebacker for Dick Tomey at Arizona from 1995-98, coaches Desert View against Marana.
Steward has an opportunity to add to Marana’s historic unbeaten start with a win over the Jaguars.
“For me, it’s been everything,” Steward said of his experience with the Tigers. “To be a head coach means everything and then we started off winning. The kids have been giving me everything. That’s all the coach can ask.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District