While it was a frustrating autumn on the gridiron at Corona del Sol High, Casa Grande was having a banner 2021 football season that ended with the undefeated Cougars winning the 4A state title.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, rode a jolting roller coaster. Coming into the season with expectations through the roof due to holdovers from undefeated teams at all three levels – varsity, junior varsity and freshman – they proceeded to lose four of their first five games. They then rallied to win their final five games, successfully defend their league championship and finish 5-5. Still, it was not enough to earn a return to the playoffs.
Jake Barro, who is a hero in Casa Grande for his team’s success, but in the Valley better known as part of the Barro family that owns a chain of popular Italian restaurants, made the move up I-10 to pick up the pieces after Jon Becktold resigned in January. Becktold, who remains a teacher on campus, led the Aztecs to the 6A Open Division playoffs two years ago.
After his first spring drills wearing orange, Barro believes there is no reason why the squad can’t return to its winning ways when fall practice begins in less than 2 months.
“I see a lot of potential, a lot of good talent,” Barro said. “I see high energy and lots of enthusiasm. There’s definitely a lot to build on.”
That begins with junior quarterback Connor Ackerley, whose improvement opened eyes at several quarterback camps during the winter and spring.
Senior kicker Carston Kieffer is regarded as one of the best in the nation.
Senior linebacker Ryne Cook and senior defensive back Tristen Shafer appear ready for key roles on defense.
Barro has family rooted in Tempe dating to Corona’s opening days in 1978. His grandfather started Barro’s Pizza and was part of the Aztecs coaching staff on the 1980 state-title team.
“That was a cool family connection that I’ve always had with this campus,” Jake Barro said. “I’ve had a lot of family come through that have graduated.”
Those family ties to Corona make this opportunity even more special to him, Barro said.
“This was always the destination job for me for that reason,” Barro said. “When this popped up, it was perfect timing because I knew it was my last year at Casa Grande and I was coming back to the East Valley.”
Barro said he has been building his relationship with his team since March, getting to know his kids off the field in order to build and grow a winning culture.
“You have to really get to know who these kids are as people and what motivates them,” Barro said. “We know where this program can go, where the potential is. We know what the kids want, so we’re holding them accountable for the work that it takes to get there.”
Barro added that the Aztec football program was in good shape when he took over. He couldn’t say that at Casa Grande.
“They’re not just good football players,” Barro said of his new team. “They’re good teammates, as well. It’s the seniors that help establish that culture as players move through the program.
“As long as they put in the work, I feel we can get this thing rolling the same way I did at Casa Grande. We can turn this into a regular East Valley powerhouse. I believe that, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.”