Mesa Community College’s Aaron Auelua

Junior college football gave Mesa Community College’s Aaron Auelua (left), a 2016 Highland High graduate, a chance to improve his grades. Auelua, a 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle, says the experience “helped me mature and become a good person and even better player.”

The ruling on the field is that junior college football in the Southeast Valley and across metro Phoenix is dead.

Interested parties say there is indisputable evidence, though, that juco football benefits student athletes, and they remain hopeful the ruling comes under review and is overturned.

For now, what appeared to be the final games were played across the Valley on Nov. 10.

“We’ve had 180-something guys go to four-year schools on scholarship in the last six seasons,” Mesa coach Ryan Felker said. “We’ve had first-round draft picks in the NFL. That doesn’t happen without this.”

Following Mesa’s season-ending win over Phoenix College, fans were seen and heard pointing at Felker, exclaiming that he was going to be the reason junior college football was saved in the Valley.

Felker offered little explanation of the comments, instead smiling and acknowleging that he and others recently received “some good news.”

“There’s some things,” Felker said. “We are going to keep working. There’s some other things coming down the line that we haven’t discussed that will definitely impact what is happening.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.”

On Feb. 5, the Maricopa County Community College District board announced the termination of junior college football. The announcement left players and coaching staffs from Scottsdale Community, Mesa Community, Glendale Community and Phoenix College questioning their future. Nearly 500 players take the field in junior college programs across the Valley every year.

Soon after, Pima Community College in Tucson announced that this would be the last season for its football program, also. Without Valley teams, there were none to schedule that are close enough to make continuation cost effective.

Junior college football gave Mesa’s Aaron Auelua a second chance to improve his grades while playing the sport he loves.

Auelua graduated from Highland High in 2016 and signed on to play football at Mesa shortly after. His high school grades kept the 6-foot-3, 330-pound defensive tackle from joining a Division I program. His time at Mesa changed that.

“It’s helped me mature and become a good person and even better player,” Auelua said after Mesa defeated Phoenix College, 37-12. “Especially with grades, that’s the reason I came here. These coaches pushed me to better myself on the field and in the classroom. I can’t thank them enough.”

Auelua became emotional thinking about the impact the experience had on him. The sophomore now has interest from four-year universities, including Northern Arizona and Texas-El Paso. Auelua will cherish his time as a Thunderbird.

“Just knowing that people may not be able to experience what I did here is sad,” he said.

Like Auelua, defensive back Gerald Wilbon came to Mesa hoping to improve in the classroom. A standout cornerback at Red Mountain High in 2017, Wilbon was impressive in his first and, for now, only season.

“Now that the game is over it’s starting to hit a little bit,” Wilbon said.

Wilbon is confident that his football career will continue, somewhere.

“This game really teaches you how to grow up, be a man and become independent,” he said.

Defensive back Sam Westfall came to Mesa to prove that he has what it takes to compete at the Division I level. As a high school junior in his home state of Utah Westfall suffered a torn ACL. The injury prevented him from playing and getting game film in what he called the most important years of his prep career. Playing at Mesa gave Westfall the opportunity to show he is capable.  

“It gave me another chance to prove my talents and gave me an opportunity to move on,” he said. “It helped me grow up as a person and mature about a lot of new things.”

As players and coaches contemplate where they go next, if anywhere, a group of former coaches continues to push the district board to reconsider the decision.

Dave Arslanian, a former coach at Scottsdale, Snow College in Utah and Division I college programs, leads the effort. He and Larry Philpot – Scottsdale CC’s first-ever coach – put a plan into place when they heard that juco football was being cancelled. It began with pushing for the election of four candidates to the MCCCD Governing Board who were open to communication to keep juco football alive.

On Nov. 6, two of those candidates – Tom Nerini and Marie Sullivan – were elected. Two existing board members said they, too, are open to discussion.

“We are very optimistic because of the commitments that have been made,” Arslanian said. “We need to not let a handful of people make that decision. We need to let the community make the decision. It’s their money that supports these programs.”

Arslanian has witnessed first-hand what football has done for thousands of players who have passed through Maricopa community college programs for decades.

For many, it gave them a way out of dangerous communities. Others benefited from a new way to receive an education.

“I don’t know any coach that trains kids to only be football players,” Arslanian said. “We teach them discipline, respect, teamwork and how to be a good student. I see it over and over again. You would be amazed at what this game does for many kids.”

Scottsdale Community College coach Doug Madoski, whose team still has a bowl game to play, was honored to receive a standing ovation prior to the Artichokes’ regular-season finale.

Even more surprising to him was that his entire family from California had flown in to greet him and the rest of his team as they walked into the stadium before the game.

“I didn’t know they were coming to town,” Madoski said after Scottsdale’s 44-17 win over Glendale. “It gets a little more real when your whole family flies in.”

In his 13th season leading the Artichokes, Madoski is accustomed to the atmosphere surrounding the final game home game of a season. But this one was different.

“I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for junior college football,” Madoski said. “I was a JC player in California and if it hadn’t been for that experience and those coaches there I wouldn’t be here.”

From the desire to improve grades to rekindling their love for the game, every player has a reason for taking the junior college route, even if it wasn’t their first choice.

As a senior at Saguaro High in 2015, quarterback Karé Lyles passed for 3,561 yards and 43 touchdowns, helping the Sabercats win the 2015 state championship.

He received a scholarship to his father’s alma mater, Wisconsin. Lyles quickly realized that it wasn’t a good fit. After one season in Madison, Lyles transferred to SCC.

“You don’t have the little things and luxuries that I got at Wisconsin,” Lyles said. “To truly find out if you love this game and see if you are willing to put everything on the line for it, I think I did that.”

Lyles, who passed for 2,016 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, hopes to help Scottsdale win the Valley of the Sun Bowl on Dec. 1.

“Keep dreaming, regardless of the situation,” Lyles said. “You talk to wise men and women in your life and they will say that you have to go through adversity to get success. I think just being here and embracing the struggle and grind of a junior college team makes the life journey more meningful.”

Contact Zach Alvira at zalvira@timespublications.com and follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.

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