The Best Arizona High School Athletic Program That You’ve Never Heard Of (Yet)

They have seven prep sports championships over the last three full school years, yet you’ve probably never heard of Leading Edge Academy- Gilbert Early College (GEC for short). It’s understandable if you haven’t. The East Valley has hundreds of public schools, and new charter schools are popping up all over the place. You won’t be able to ignore GEC for long, as the school, nicknamed the Spartans, has begun to build a championship resume under the visage of Athletic Director Erik Gray.

Aside from his duties as AD, Gray coaches girls basketball, and has helped the lady Spartans win three consecutive state championships. He has helped coach several other sports at the school, including soccer, which he played collegiately. Gray is one of four coaches at GEC with collegiate athletic experience:  Softball coach Nikki Foster played at the University of Findlay, Volleyball coach Katie Bradley played at Wichita State, and boys varsity basketball coach Tyler Leuning  played at William Jessup University. 

GEC is in its 10th year, and has seen its athletic programs grow exponentially from one boys basketball team in ’06-’07, to now boasting between 7-9 athletic programs each year, depending on participation levels. As a charter school, GEC competes in the Canyon Athletic Association, which oversees 173 schools all over the state. Often, the CAA has to help schools start, as well as run their athletic programs. CAA Executive Director Randall Baum views GEC’s success and growth as a model for the rest of the association. “People look at what Erik is doing and say ‘we can do this.’ It’s no secret what he’s done over there. He’s focused and he hasn’t spread himself thin,” Baum said. “Erik Gray looks at his program and says ‘We’re going to do these sports, and we’re going to do them well.’ And it has worked.”

Many smaller schools face hurdles with budgeting, scheduling, traveling, and securing facilities for athletics. Up until this year, GEC was no exception. The 2014-15 school year is GEC’s first in their brand new school building, a remodeled Albertson’s grocery store with a state-of-the-art gym on the southeast corner of Cooper and Ray. Before that, GEC shared a facility with Life Community Church on Gilbert and Guadalupe, and would have to go in search of places to play “home” games. The Spartans would often defend their state championship titles by playing home games at Inspire Courts, the Boys and Girls Club, various churches, and even at the opposing team’s facility. This year, they have the ability to host other schools, and more importantly, give their students an opportunity to attend games and increase school spirit. “The athletic department has helped build a real sense of community,” Said GEC Principal Vicky Hallam. GEC received an “A” rating from the department of education for the 2013-14 school year, and Hallam believes that the incentive to be a part of Spartan athletics has helped students thrive in the classroom. “It encourages students to keep their grades up so they can be a part of the success those programs are having.”

The current year looks to be another promising one for the Spartans, as the defending CAA Division II state champion girls volleyball team returned 2013 Player of the Year Madyson Rahn, and digs leader Kristin Peplinski, both juniors, and are currently ranked #2 in their division. Boys basketball has made four consecutive trips to the state semifinals, and this year they received a pair of talented transfers in Devin Bowens (2015) from Desert Hills and Nathan Clark (2016). Spartans coach Tyler Leuning, who played his high school ball at Horizon Honors, is hoping they can blend well with returning 6-5 standout senior Daniel McDermott, who averaged 22 points and 12 rebounds per game last year. 

GEC is also hoping to continue their stretch of dominance in girls basketball, chasing their fourth consecutive state title with a young core of girls that include Ariana Clavell, Emily Broos, Halle Price and Prima Chellis. Clavell, a 6-0 freshman, already has two state titles as she was allowed to play varsity while in middle school. As an 8th grader, Clavell was second on the team in scoring behind 2013-14 CAA Player of the Year Hannah Carpenter, but led the team in rebounds per game with 9.5. Erik Gray attributes’ the girls success to a willingness to do the routine things it takes to be excellent, which is an attitude he has seemed to use himself to help build Leading Edge- GEC’s athletic program from the ground up.

“Erik has scattered that sense of a culture of success throughout the CAA by making sure GEC kids have the best equipment available, played the maximum games allowable, and are always accommodating and professional,” said Randy Baum.

With a young group of athletes who are bought into a winning culture across several sports, as well as a new building, the Spartans are looking to make enough noise that the casual prep sports fan will have no choice but to notice in the coming years.