Chandler Hovik made the difficult decision to follow some of his Pop Warner teammates to Cesar Chavez.
A few years later, when the program was in the news and on probation, some of those same teammates left for other schools, but Hovik stuck it out.
Hovik's sense of loyalty is one of the qualities that made the Ahwatukee Foothills resident one of state's best quarterbacks the last two seasons.
"The kids want to play for him," Cesar Chavez coach Jim Rattay said. "He came into a tough situation, where he was a minority, and flourished, and he showed so much courage."
Hovik, who grew up within the Desert Vista High School boundaries, chose to go to Chavez because most of his teammates from the Jackrabbits, his youth football team, were attending the school in Laveen.
It could have been a difficult situation for a 5-foot-4, 115-pound freshman at a school where white students are the minority, but Hovik said it was never an issue.
"I was hesitant, a little at first, but I truly appreciated the fact that the team really embraced me and the fact that I can call them my friends," he said. "I truly built friendships that will last a lifetime."
When he arrived on campus, Rattay said it was hard to envision Hovik developing into the player that helped the Champions to their first winning season since 2008-09.
"The freshmen coaches never thought he'd be a varsity starter," said Rattay, who added that Chandler's parents were just as important to the program in fundraising. "He was so small it was hard to see him grow into something special, but what they didn't see was the courage this kid had. He plays so hard and puts himself on the line for this team.
"When your star player is a rotten egg, it spoils your whole team. When your star, like Chandler, is someone everyone respects, and is such a good role model, the team will follow him to the end of the earth."
Hovik didn't want to go that far, just to the postseason after being eligible for the first time in three years after being on probation the previous two seasons.
The Champions finished 7-3 and placed 20th in the Division II power rankings, but felt a little cheated by the new computer scheduling.
They played a Division III team in Sierra Linda that went 1-10, meaning Cesar Chavez got less points for the win because they beat a team from a lower division. It became more of a setback when the Champions received very little in opponent's victory points because of Sierra Linda's poor season.
"It was frustrating to have my last game end in a loss (34-7 to Marcos de Niza) and miss the playoffs," Hovik said. "We felt like we were one of the teams that deserve to be in the playoffs, but it didn't work out that way."
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Hovik did his part in returning Chavez and Rattay back to their winning ways with his accuracy and leadership.
He completed 62.8 percent (149 of 237) of his passes for 2,159 yards with 25 touchdowns and five interceptions a year after leading the state in completion percentage (70.6) when he split time at the varsity level.
"I thought I could be successful at the high school level, but I didn't know how successful," Hovik said about his goals when he was a 5-4 freshman. "Coach Rattay really helped me become the player I am. He was like a father figure to everyone on the team. Everything he does is for us and I don't think there is a coach who cares more about his players."
It helped Hovik, who has a 4.08 weighted GPA, feel totally comfortable with his decision to go to Chavez, even though two of his best friends - Hunter Rodriguez and Matt Smith - are prominent players for Desert Vista.
"We did some good things over the last two years," he said. "It is more than the wins and losses. Most of the students from Chavez have only one parent or have to work jobs to help out at home. It's why being on the team is so important. It gives everyone a sense of family and something to look forward to each day."
Hovik said the experience of spending time with people with varied backgrounds will only help when he resumes his football career in college in the fall at a small Division I program or a lower-level program.
"I want to go somewhere where I can get a chance to play early in my career," he said. "I know I can go anywhere and adapt because I found a home at Chavez. It wasn't easy, but I am better for doing it."
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