By zach alvira,GSN Sports Editor

When Arete Preparatory Academy football coach Cord Smith was asked to resurrect the program in 2017 after a one-year hiatus, he was admittedly caught off-guard.

“I didn’t expect to fall into a head coaching job,” Smith said. “It was tough but it laid the foundation for this year.”

Arete won five of its first seven games under a freshman quarterback who is among national passing leaders, and the Chargers are on the verge of landing a 1A playoff berth.

After they went 0-8 in 2015, former athletic director and coach Amy Arnold canceled the 2016 season due to a lack of participation.

When the program was brought back under Smith in 2017, it was forced to go through a one-year probation period by the Arizona Interscholastic Association. During that time, Smith made phone calls and sent emails to schools in the Valley and around the state to set up a schedule of games.

Smith landed eight opponents. Arete finished 2-6.

“It was rough at times,” Smith said. “We played both 8-man and 11-man football. We had some injuries and got down to 16 players by the end of the season.”

Now eligible for postseason play in the AIA 8-man 1A conference, Smith and the Chargers are closing in on the playoffs for the first time since 2013, when the school was known as Mesa Prep.

The Chargers’ success has largely come from freshman quarterback Matthew McClelland, who passed for 1,814 yards and 20 touchdowns through seven games and rushed for three more.

McClelland is fourth in the nation for passing yards in 8-man football, and first overall among freshmen, according to MaxPreps.

“A lot of freshmen don’t get to lead a varsity team but it’s been fun,” McClelland said. “It feels good knowing that I have good targets that I can go to.”

McClelland has connected with 10 receivers, three of whom have more than 300 yards.

Senior Brennan Weir leads the Chargers with 45 receptions for 779 yards and seven touchdowns. Behind him is senior Ben White – also the Chargers’ running back – with 18 catches for 379 yards.

Junior Noah McClelland – Matthew’s brother – follows closely with 19 receptions for 364 yards.

“My brother and I throw the ball together a lot at home,” Matthew McClelland said. “I have become more comfortable with everybody and more confident with passing.”

Matthew’s confidence has grown each week since he was named the starter in the spring.

He is still shy, a characteristic that he shares with his brother. But his intensity has started to emerge.

McClelland has shown poise in the pocket. His ability to get the ball down the field to receivers has impressed the senior leaders of the team.

“He was a little timid in the beginning but he has a great arm and makes great reads,” Weir said. “I think over the course of the season he has really developed and has started to break out.”

At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Weir often is among the biggest players on the field, making it easy to see why he would be the top target for McClelland.

Weir is one of two seniors who have seen the program come full-circle since his freshman year. He remained committed to the team through the down years and hopes to leave a legacy of hard work and commitment.

“We have a banner in our weight room that says, ‘Change the Culture,’” Weir said. “We want to show people that we can compete in athletics.”

During the off season, Weir works with a personal trainer, focusing on drills specific to his position. Weir has offers from Illinois Wesleyan University, Augustana College and Macalester College – all Division III schools.

Division III programs may not offer athletic scholarships. They offer academic scholarships or financial aid with an opportunity to play whatever sport the athlete desires.

“They are looking for me to be a tight end,” Weir said. “It’s been an awesome journey.”

Weir’s journey at Arete Prep isn’t over yet, as he and the Chargers may potentially host a game in the first round of the 1A playoffs. Given that the Chargers are undefeated at home, it seemingly would give them an advantage to make a deep run.

“I am along for the ride. I’ve enjoyed it,” Smith said. “Our goal at the beginning of the year was to make the playoffs. I think the kids are starting to see the fruit of their labor finally paying off with wins.

“It’s been awesome.”