Several East Valley football programs, including both Desert Vista and Mountain Pointe, may have thought of last year’s shortened season as a mulligan because of the pandemic-driven cancellations and strict restrictions.
The Thunder and Pride were kept off the field throughout the spring and weren’t able to begin light workouts outside with no equipment until well into the summer.
As a result, a slew of first-year varsity players for Desert Vista and a new coaching staff for Mountain Pointe had little time to establish the team chemistry of years past.
This season, however, has been vastly different despite more changes to both programs.
“I can’t imagine not having an offseason again,” first-year Desert Vista coach Ty Wisdom said. “It’s still been different. We had to chase some kids who weren’t able to make it in the spring, but we have been really trying to spend time with them and build that trust.”
Desert Vista hired Wisdom as its third-ever head football coach after Dan Hinds announced his retirement after 19 years leading the program. Wisdom spent the last three years leading the Horizon program to an Open Division appearance in 2019 and playoffs the year before.
In 2020, the Wisdom-led Huskies dealt with their fair share of cancellations due to COVID-19 cases within the program. It forced them to miss two total games and as a result, they finished the year 3-3 and missed the condensed playoffs.
Hired in December, Wisdom was able to get an early start during offseason workouts with a Thunder football program that went 0-6 in 2020.
He established the Thunder’s new motto, “All Gas, No Breaks,” and put together a coaching staff mixed with old and new members of the program. Most importantly, they’ve been able to establish an identity on the field with equipment.
Last year, Tempe Union schools were denied the ability to use footballs until the second phase of the district’s return-to-play plan. That phase came in August, the normal start time for official practices and games.
“We started spring ball pretty early so I feel like we might be ahead of some programs,” Desert Vista junior quarterback Jackson Akins said. “It’s been critical for us. We would go out and practice and then hit the weight room. That’s really helped us improve.”
The difficult and at times, harsh, restrictions set forth by the district last spring made it difficult for Mountain Pointe head coach Eric Lauer to get a feel for his players and their mindset. He was just a couple of months into his tenure as head coach and was forced to build chemistry with his players through a computer screen rather than face to face.
It led to some setbacks within the program, which ultimately resulted in a 1-7 season. However, the Pride’s lone win came in the regular-season finale against Desert Vista.
In many ways, that win set the foundation for what Lauer at the time hoped would be as close to a “normal” offseason as possible.
That ultimately came to fruition as restrictions were lightened throughout the second semester and the Pride were able to hit the field early in the spring. But perhaps the most important outcome of being able to conduct an actual offseason workout regimen was the Pride’s ability to lift weights as a team.
“The weight room is a huge part,” Lauer said. “Especially with kids not being outside as much right now, that’s where you can compete. Track was huge for us because we had a lot of our kids out there and it allowed us to recondition the body but most of their growth came from our workouts.”
Like Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe dealt with new additions to the varsity roster in the form of transfers. Several athletes from the Phoenix Union district, which initially canceled the fall sports season then proceeded with a three-game schedule for each program in November, made the move to Mountain Pointe to play in as many games as possible.
It took time for them to become acquainted with the rest of the team. They leaned upon the likes of Alhambra transfer Jaden Crockett for guidance, who was voted captain in his first and only year with the Pride. But it’s been the 2022 class that has taken over and led Mountain Pointe throughout the spring and into the early summer months.
Overall, they’re already seeing improvement in their play during tournaments.
“We’ve just been building our chemistry,” senior wide receiver Jordan Huff said. “Last year we couldn’t throw the ball to each other. Coach has been calling a bunch of different plays and we can actually spread the ball around. It’s been great for us. I think we have turned into a solid passing team.”
Both teams figure to be much-improved compared to the difficult seasons both insured last year. But both coaches admit there is still plenty of work to be done.
Desert Vista continues to learn a virtually new offense and defense while the Pride look to solidify their identity with Lauer at the helm. Both of those won’t be quick overnight fixes. They will take time.
However, every player has bought into their respective systems and recognizes the amount of work it will take to get to where they want to be. Much of that stems from their pure joy and excitement to have a somewhat normal offseason again. At this point, that’s all each coach can ask for.
“I like the effort, they all come out here and work,” Wisdom said. “About 95 percent of our kids didn’t miss a spring practice. At the end of the day, you’re going to go out and win with the guys that want to be here.”
“People have always taken the offseason for granted even though that’s where you build your team and see what you have for the following year,” Lauer added about his program. “Last year, we didn’t have that. But to see them complete tasks and reach goals together this offseason, I think it means a lot.”