Mountain Pointe students

"Mountain Pointe students made the trip to Hamilton Friday night to support the Pride football program against the Huskies."

The entire Mountain Pointe High School community rallied behind its football program, showing support for a team betrayed by a former coach. 

Students and supporters plan to do the same in the winter for the boys’ basketball team. 

But more importantly, they want to show the girls’ basketball program – which lost its head coach in an unimaginable way – they aren’t alone during a difficult time. 

“They’ve kind of been the forgotten story in all of this,” said Jim Sawitzke, the president of the Mountain Pointe football booster club. “I feel really terrible for what they have to go through. In my three or four years involved with Mountain Pointe, I haven’t been to one of their games, but I plan to this season.

“I’m really hoping those girls have a great season because, in some ways, this has probably been worse for them than it has been for us.”

Justin Hager, hired in 2016 to lead the girls’ basketball program, faces firing by the Tempe Union High School District after an investigation revealed he had used an anonymous email address to send game strategy to opponents of the boys’ basketball and football programs since 2017. 

The Tempe Union board last week refused to accept his resignation, deciding instead to fire him at its next meeting.

Hager was also an assistant coach for the football program, a position he took on under former Mountain Pointe coach Norris Vaughan in 2017. 

According to district officials, Hager used the email address walterpayton12@yahoo.com to send hundreds of emails with formations, plays and defensive strategies to several in-state opposing coaches. 

He also sent information about Mountain Pointe’s football program to two out of state programs, Faith Lutheran (Las Vegas, Nevada), whom the Pride beat in the first game this years’ season. 

It was after that game Faith Lutheran coach Vernon Fox alerted Mountain Pointe coach Rich Wellbrock about the walterpayton12 email address, sparking the district’s investigation. 

“My initial thought was that it wasn’t so bad,” Sawitzke said. “But when we had a parent meeting and when I talked to my son driving home, I was really worked up about it.”

According to emails released by Tempe Union officials, Perry High head football coach Preston Jones was the only coach to respond to the anonymous address. 

The emails show a message from WalterPayton12 sent on Nov. 14, 2017, explaining Mountain Pointe was planning to run the same defense it did against Chandler when it faced Perry in the 2017 6A Conference semifinals. 

A reply from Jones’ account asked, “Why do you think they will do what they did against Chandler?” On Nov. 16-17, 2017, WalterPayton12 allegedly sent pdf images of Mountain Pointe’s defense to Jones and then another email explaining the defense they would run.

 Jones did not reply to either message. 

Perry went on to defeat Mountain Pointe, 56-31. There is no indication the information sent to Jones or any other coach was used against Mountain Pointe. 

Perry High Principal Dan Serrano told the AIA on Sept. 18 neither Jones nor basketball coach Sam Duane used information from walterpayton12.

Gilbert Public Schools asked principals and athletic directors at Highland and Desert Ridge to follow up with coaches received emails from the anonymous account. The district has not commented. 

Chandler High Principal Larry Rother told AFN in a phone interview Sept. 17, Aguano had reported the email he received last November. 

The email contained defensive strategy Mountain Pointe had allegedly been planning to use against Chandler in the 6A quarterfinals. A chart showing the Wolves’ defense was also included in the email. Chandler went on to beat Mountain Pointe 49-21. 

“Coach Aguano came down to our office and said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know I got this anonymous email from someone claiming to have inside information about Mountain Pointe,’” Rother said. “We asked him if he thought it was credible and he said ‘no.’

“We decided we would just move on, delete the email, not respond and go on and plan the game like we normally would.”

Since news of the Tempe Union’s investigation broke on Sept. 16, Hager’s betrayal sparked outrage on social media from former players and parents of Mountain Pointe. 

“Our entire campus is shocked at these findings. It is the responsibility of all adults on a high school campus to act with integrity and to put students first in all we do,” Mountain Pointe Principal Tomika Banks said in a press release last week, adding:

 “Mountain Pointe students, families and staff are heartbroken to learn our trust was violated by someone we cared for and considered a member of our family.”

Students and parents currently involved with the program have come together in ways Sawitzke said he hasn’t seen before during his time as a booster club member. 

The Pride boosters usually have a small cookout for players every other Thursday night, according to Sawitzke. 

It usually involves the entire booster club plus other parents willing to help out. 

But last week, Sawitzke said, numerous parents and other supporters of the football program banded together to provide a team meal he has never seen before. 

“There were probably 500 text messages organizing this thing,” Sawitzke said. “I’ve been in this program for about five years now and I’ve never felt that it was closer. Even people who aren’t usually involved reached out to show support and inspire the boys.

“It’s really inspiring and I’ve never been prouder of the whole Mountain Pointe community.”

On Friday, Mountain Pointe’s first game since Tempe Union’s investigation went public, supporters dressed in maroon and gold filled most of the visitors’ bleachers at Hamilton High School. 

The school’s band played the fight song, while students dressed in neon attire cheered on their peers.

Several signs were displayed for all to see, including one that said, “Pride mean power” and others showing support for players on the field who fought through several distractions to get ready for the game. 

On the Mountain Pointe sideline, there was no pity party.

The players were locked in during warmups and even joined Wellbrock in the middle of the field to jump around to the music playing over the loudspeakers. 

One could sense the players just wanted to play football – a feeling Sawitzke couldn’t help but echo even when Mountain Pointe faced a large deficit at halftime. 

“The kids are handling it better than the adults,” Sawitzke said. “They’re glad to be here. They’re glad to be practicing and playing football. My son said this was the best week of practice they’ve had since he has been in the program. 

“Not only an I’m proud of them, but I’m thankful for this staff,” he added. “They’ve put every minute for the last two weeks into this issue and yet they still are able to come out here and coach a football game.” 

The Mountain Pointe players and coaching staff weren’t pleased with the outcome of the game, as they lost convincingly to Hamilton. Neither players nor coaches were available for comment after the buzzer had sounded. 

It’s been a difficult start to the year for Mountain Pointe, as the Pride has fallen to 1-3 on the year. But each week the team has put the loss behind them to focus on the next.

 There’s no doubt they will do the same as they head into a matchup with Queen Creek on Friday, it’s what they’re taught to do by coaches. 

But Sawitzke believes they will aim to put more behind them this week than just the loss.  

“They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity, but they still get to wake up and play football,” Sawitzke said. “They were able to get back to just playing football, which is something I believe they wanted to do.”

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