East Valley athletes overcome adversity to sign with colleges The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

East Valley athletes overcome adversity to sign with colleges

December 20th, 2020 Mesa Tribune Staff
East Valley athletes overcome adversity to sign with colleges

By Zach Alvira
Tribune Sports Editor

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.

“In February I got my first offer but before then I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Skyline senior defensive back Zeke Branham said. “It’s such a relief now. Ever since that first offer it’s been a blessing.”

Branham announced his college destination Wednesday in Skyline’s gymnasium. Choosing between a preferred walk-on off from Oregon and four-year scholarships from Fresno State, Army, Princeton and Air Force, Branham kept his decision under wraps from everyone, his parents included.

He was one of many athletes who had to overcome difficult restrictions by the NCAA surrounding recruiting this year due to the pandemic.

In March, the NCAA announced it had extended its recruiting dead period, which doesn’t allow coaches to travel and see recruits in-person. At first, the travel ban was only slated to last a couple of weeks. But as the pandemic worsened, it was extended through December. The dead period extension also meant athletes were unable to take official visits to schools, a major factor in deciding whether or not to attend.

All the traditional aspects of recruiting were forced to go virtual, which Bran-ham admits was difficult. But he feels the coaching staff at Fresno State was the overall best fit for him even without having met in person.

“It was extremely difficult,” 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.”

Chandler senior quarterback Mikey Keene dealt with the same adversity as Branham surrounding his recruitment.

In September, when the outlook on having a 2020 prep football season in Arizona was still uncertain, Keene announced his commitment to the University of Central Florida. In some ways, Keene is taking a blind leap of faith having not been able to visit campus. But he’s confident it’ll make for a good home the next four years.

Keene will join the knights for offseason workouts in Orlando in January.

“I can’t wait at this point,” 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.”

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 emerged 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.

“Everything I’ve done, I’m starting to finally see it all pay off,” Branham said. “It’s just an amazing feeling.”

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