CASA GRANDE — The allure of coaching captivated Kurt Kieser at a young age, and his desire to help high school athletes realize their potential never wavered over the years.
“I’ve always been around sports and liked the competitiveness of being an athlete,” Kieser said. “You want to pass that on and hopefully see others get that satisfaction.”
In a career that began with Kieser establishing the track and field program at Wellton Antelope in 1988, he’s decided that 32 years as a head coach at three Arizona high schools was sufficient. It’s been quite a ride for the 1982 Casa Grande Union graduate.
Kieser’s retirement ends a reign that includes stints at CG Union (cross country for 14 years from 2005-18, track and field for 13 years from 2009-21, boys basketball for six years starting in 2001-02); Maricopa (track — where he also started that program — for nine years from 1993-2001 and boys basketball for nine years starting in 1992-93); and Antelope, where he spent four years as the track coach from 1988-91.
Kieser, who’s been at CG Union since being hired in 2001 as a physical education/health teacher, was an assistant track coach from 2002-08 before being promoted to the top spot and an assistant cross country coach from 2001-04.
He also was an assistant football coach at Antelope for three years and spent the 1991-92 school year at Winslow, where he was an assistant football and track coach.
As a high school athlete, Kieser won the state title in the 800 meters at Tucson Flowing Wells in the spring of 1981 to cap his junior year. Kieser’s family moved to Casa Grande in the fall of 1981 after his father was named the Cougars’ boys basketball coach. The addition of Kieser and his brother Kenny to the cross country team helped propel CG Union to the 1981 big-school state championship.
To realize his goal of becoming a coach, “I knew I would have to become a teacher,” Kieser said. So after playing two years of basketball at Central Arizona College, he obtained his bachelor’s degree from Northern Arizona University (and later a master’s from NAU).
Each sport Kieser led had its challenges.
“Coaching a team sport like basketball is definitely a lot harder because everybody has to be on the same page,” he said. “It’s not easy keeping everybody happy because they all want to play.”
And more than a few players harbor unrealistic expectations, such as playing at the Division I level or even in the NBA.
Team scores are tabulated in track and cross country, but individual performances are the real yardsticks. Besides having natural ability, athletes in those sports must have a robust work ethic to be successful.
Regarding track and cross country, “you do your coaching in practice,” Kieser said of advice he once received from four-time Olympian George Young, a 1968 bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and long-time Casa Grande resident who coached cross country and track for many years at CAC. “Once you’re at the meet, you’re cheering people on.”
Three of Kieser’s CG Union track and field athletes were state meet winners — Chris Rutledge in the 800 in 2009, Ryan Wheeler in the 100 and 200 in 2010, and Benji Ngonomo in the triple jump in 2011. He also had a five-time state champion at Maricopa (Mike Gardner in the 100 in 1992, the 400 in 1994 and the 100, 200 and 400 in 1995) and one state winner at Antelope (Aaron Simpson in the triple jump in 1988).
“Any time you have an athlete win a state championship, you feel it as much as they do because I was (a state champ) once myself,” Kieser said.
Although he never had a girls state champion, Kieser said Danielle Shaw (2008), niece Kylee Kieser (2009), Roma White (2019) and Psalm Johnson (2021) head the list of his top female athletes.
Along with the state champs, Kieser takes pride in the 17 school records that were set under his tenure.
As CG Union’s boys basketball coach, “we won the (Tucson) Palo Verde tournament in my first year and that was really gratifying,” he said.
One of the highlights of coaching cross country, Kieser said, was taking anywhere from 15 to 25 athletes to a summer camp in San Diego. They had to put in a certain number of miles to earn the trip.
“The kids and I really looked forward to that,” Kieser said.
Adapting to the changes in how high school students interact with the world has never been a problem for the 57-year-old Kieser, married for 35 years with three children. What does bother him is specialization, specifically club sports that tend to limit kids to one sport for their entire childhood.
“That hurts in getting athletes out (for sports like track),” he said.
Even so, “we’ve had about 100 (boys and girls combined) most years,” primarily because Kieser has been such a relentless recruiter. He always tried to convince athletes from other sports that if they came out for track and field they wouldn’t have to run — just jump or throw.
Kieser said he will continue to teach at CG Union and possibly do a little more coaching.
“I’ll always be grateful that I was a head coach at my alma mater,” he said. “I’m happy with the decision to give it up — it was time — but I’ll probably have coaching withdrawals. I’d be glad to be an assistant if the new (track) coach wants me.”