For years, they couldn’t wait to get out of high school.
Once they graduated, they jumped at the chance to come back.
There are almost a dozen former student-athletes from local high schools Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe who have been there, done that, and are keeping their legacies alive by returning as assistant coaches.
“It’s a tribute to coaches when athletes who played want to come back and be involved in programs that, in most cases, they helped to create and build, especially since (the schools) are so young,” said TJ Snyder, Desert Vista assistant principal and athletic director.
Although Snyder went to Tempe Corona del Sol, his career and decision to be part of Desert Vista’s staff was influenced during his middle school years by Desert Vista baseball coach Stan Luketich.
“I knew Luke from when I used to go to his summer baseball camps,” Snyder said. “Then, when I was student teaching at Mountain Pointe he asked if I’d like to come over and help with the baseball team. I’d change my clothes and drive over to Desert Vista.”
He’s been there as a teacher and administrator ever since. Now, Snyder is technically Luketich’s boss.
Desert Vista’s boys basketball program is one of a host of programs at both schools to have a connection to the past. Varsity assistant coach Travis Gabbidon was a three-year starter who played on the Thunder’s state-runner-up teams in 2003 and 2004, while junior varsity coach Paul Hardiman and assistant junior varsity coach Bryant St. Cyr also played locally. Hardiman grew up an Ahwatukee Foothills resident who starred at nearby Valley Christian High School from 2001 through 2003. St. Cyr was a three-year starter for the Thunder from 2005 through 2007.
Gabbidon had been playing for the University of Texas-San Antonio until he graduated last spring.
“It feels good to be back where you were raised,” said Gabbidon, who will head to Australia later this month to play professional ball. “This is a great community, and it’s a chance to give back to a school that did so much for me. I think everyone on this team is too young to remember when I played, but they can see the banners, and I can tell them stories. Hopefully they can take something from that and appreciate the tradition.”
The Desert Vista girls varsity program is bonded to the past through junior varsity coach Kalie Nance, a 2005 DV graduate, and a pair of former Mountain Pointe standouts.
Holly Johnson, considered one of the best girls high school players in Arizona history, was a member of the Mountain Pointe girls team that won the 2002 state championship before playing collegiately at Florida State. She is in her second season as the Desert Vista girls varsity assistant coach while Willie Sellers, who played for the Mountain Pointe boys team from 1999 to 2001, is also an assistant coach with the girls varsity team.
The irony of coaching for a school that was a rival for four years isn’t lost on Johnson.
“The first time I went back to Mountain Pointe it felt a little weird,” Johnson said. “The girls (at Desert Vista) knew a little bit about me, then before the game they were in the gym lobby at Mountain Pointe and saw my jersey and picture and were saying something like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s you.’ What was neat about that was that they saw what the next level is like.”
Johnson was a communications major at Florida State, but coaching came naturally.
Her parents ran a nonprofit basketball academy for 10 years, and she helped out while going to high school.
“The kids are the draw,” Johnson said. “And obviously it’s our passion and love for basketball and giving back. Even when I helped my parents, my passion was to coach and help out, and high school is a good level for me to be able to do that.”
Nance has told Johnson she used to watch her play when she was at Mountain Pointe.
“That’s a humbling experience,” Johnson said, “but I’m sure the girls feel that way about Kalie and the boys look up to Travis.”
Desert Vista girls varsity coach Rachel Proudfoot thinks having players return could become a tradition, if it isn’t already.
“I think they loved what they had here and hopefully, as I continue to coach, we’ll have more come back,” Proudfoot said.
Desert Vista boys had coach Doug Harris agrees.
“It means a lot to me as a coach that former players want to come back,” Harris said. “That high school experience meant something to them. They were part of the culture, and they want to help out.”
Jenn Thronson, a member of the Desert Vista girls soccer state championship team in 2005, has been an assistant with that program since 2006. Thronson said she never intended to officially get into coaching when she agreed to help out with the girls soccer team six months after she graduated five years ago.
“I never really left,” Thronson explained. “I was playing at Mesa Community College, and I came back to practice with the team during the Christmas break. My sister was on the team at the time and the coach then, Pierson Hamilton, asked me if I would help and I said ‘yes.’ I never planned on it at all.”
When Paul Manoogian took over the program four years ago he wanted to keep Thronson on board.
“She is the only one on the team that can wear the star (signifying a state championship),” Manoogian said. “It’s a huge part of understanding the tradition here and former players see the game differently than coaches. She gives the program continuity, and she’s great with all the little details.”
If there is a down side, Thronson said it’s that she still looks like she is a player and at the start of every season has to convince school security guards that she doesn’t need a pass to enter and leave the campus.
Whether they are volunteer or paid assistants, they all have to be approved by the Tempe Union High School District board to coach.
“Ahwatukee still has that small-town feeling,” Snyder said. “A lot of these kids, and they aren’t kids now, helped create a tradition here. We’re fortunate that they want to come back.”