Brian Belles has been the defensive coordinator at Cactus for more than a decade and a defensive coach at the Glendale school for more than two decades.
He said he never applied for the head coaching job at Cactus, or any other high school, content as an assistant. At least he was, until he couldn't see anyone else doing the job properly at his "home" school.
Belles came back as defensive coordinator in 2018, as Joseph Ortiz came in as head coach and offensive coordinator. They worked well together, as the Cobras went 36-10 in Ortiz's four seasons, reaching the 4A title game in 2020 and the Open Division for the state's top eight teams in 2021.
Perry, a Chandler district school that made the 6A finals as recently as 2018, interviewed Ortiz for its coaching position and hired him on Jan. 14. This time Belles did apply, and was the logical choice, with Cactus naming him as the program's fifth head coach Jan. 21.
After all, how often does a school get the chance to hire a new coach that has already led it to a playoff victory.
“For me, knowing that Joe had a pretty good chance of getting the job, I had to sit down and think about what was going to happen. Honestly, most of our staff is intact and I’m fortunate enough to stay in a situation where I don’t have to find a staff. I’ve got everything in place and a number of kids coming back,” Belles said. “I didn’t want somebody else coming in and starting from the ground up again. I thought what was best for Cactus was for me to apply. I played for Coach Pat Farrell at St. Mary’s and Coach Fetkenhier taught me how to be a good coach.”
Fetkenhier, a National High School Athletic Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach, led Cactus for 33 years and Belles was there for more than half. In 1999 Belles started on the campus through an education program at ASU, as the Cobras' JV defensive coordinator.
He was transferred to Centennial in 2000 and helped uncle Steve Belles out at Scottsdale Desert Mountain that year. After earning his masters degree, Belles returned to Cactus in 2001 and remained on staff until after the 2016 season, when he decided to join his uncle’s staff at Hamilton.
In 2014 Fetkenhier discovered he had kidney cancer. His surgery to remove it was the week of the Cobras opening 4A playoff team. Belles stepped in as head coach for the first round win at Sunrise Mountain and a quarterfinal loss at Tempe.
“For me, loyalty to Cactus is first and foremost. I took the opportunity at Hamilton to go coach with Steve. That’s why I left. I didn’t leave to make more money or get a bigger name,” Belles said. “What’s important to me is the group I’m around and the school I’m in. My daughter was an all-state volleyball player here, my wife teaches here and my youngest daughter is now a pommie here. To me, this is home.”
That year at Hamilton turned out far more difficult than imagined and Brian Belles never got the opportunity to coach with his uncle. Steve Belles was reassigned by the Chandler district after a hazing and sexual abuse scandal rocked the Hamilton program.
Brian Belles and the rest of the staff coached at Hamilton for the 2017 season but clearly he wouldn't be coming back.
Following Fetkenhier's falling out with the Cactus administation in 2017, the school hired Ortiz - another St. Mary's Knight - in January 2018. Belles came home to run the defense.
In 2019 the Cobras reached their first 4A semifinal since 2011. In 2020 Cactus made its first state final since that same 2011 team, losing a 39-38 thriller to Gilbert Mesquite.
This fall the Cobras were undefeated, and ranked among the state's top 10 teams nearly all season. Cactus went 10-0 for the first time since 2005, falling to eventual overall state champion Scottsdale Saguaro in the Open quarterfinals. And Ortiz was the West Valley Preps coach of the year.
"I'll have great memories," Ortiz said. "I was blessed to coach in a state championship game and in the open division this year. It was a hard decision but one I had to make."
Belles said he learned over winter break that Ortiz was applying for Perry, figured he would get the job, and was not going to head back to the far East Valley with him after his experience at Hamilton.
Plus most of the staff wanting to stay at Cactus -including Mason Crossland staying on as quarterbacks coach and moving up to full time offensive coordinator - played a part in his decision to apply. It was a quick turnaround, but Belles said he did go through the interview process.
“That year at Hamilton was difficult and I knew after that season I would be looking again. When the opportunity came to me to come back it was a no-brainer,” Belles said. “The last four years for us was a really good time for our program to build back up. We hadn’t been out of the quarterfinals since 2011 when we lost the championship to Saguaro. To see the buy in from the kids was really special, And with some of those schools going up to 5A like Saguaro, which had racked up championships for 10 years without having real competition, it kind of gave us hope again.”
As both the current and former Cactus coaches said, the program is losing some great seniors, but the tank’s is far from empty.
Ortiz said the toughest part of leaving for Perry was saying goodbye early to juniors like quarterback Will Galvan, running back Damian Jiles and safety Polo Banuelos.
"It was an opportunity to coach in the 6A Premier Region an in the Chandler Unified district. It wasn't like I thought it was time for me to look, it was this job. Those junior are a special group in my heart," Ortiz said.
The successes of the last three seasons caused Cactus to move up to 5A and resume region rivalries with Desert Edge and Sunrise Mountain.
So it's imperative to continue the momentum from the past three years.
"It was honestly a relief to hear they're making sure to keep the momentum of the program going. Belles is extremely loved in that community. Cactus was very smart to hire him quickly," Ortiz said.
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