Mountain Pointe High School holds a special place in the heart of Mona Nyheim-Canales.
Both of her sons played football for the Pride before going off to college. Several of the swimmers she coaches at Pitchfork Aquatics, a club program based in the East Valley, went through the Mountain Pointe program. She has become a staple in the Arizona swim scene herself, competing at the University of Arizona and moving back to the Valley in 2015.
So, when she was approached by Mountain Pointe Athletic Director Aaron Frana about taking over a Pride swim program that had seen participation numbers plummet, she accepted the responsibility.
“My entire career, I worked with swimmers at every level, said Nyheim-Canales, who is currently pursuing her doctorate in sports psychology. “I was kind of hesitant when he first asked. To me, it’s about creating opportunities for the kids. If you look at the statistics, less than one percent will compete at the college level. It’s important they have a coach who can teach them things and have fun while they can.”
Nyheim-Canales’ resume speaks for itself. She’s been a swim coach the last 25 years at the club and collegiate level. She had stints at the University of Houston, University of Illinois, University of North Texas and the University of Michigan. She’s helped develop several high-level swimmers at Pitchfork Aquatics, including Kendall Dawson, who competed at this year’s Olympic Trials.
Dawson joined Nyheim-Canales on staff at Mountain Pointe as an assistant coach. Mekaela Wright, a Pride alum, also joined the staff as an assistant. Sarah Bathe, who dove for Arizona State, is the head diving coach alongside Nyheim-Canales.
Her accolades mixed with the experience from her assistant coaches led to a mini surge of participants for this year’s swim team. Last year, the team entered the season with 19 total participants. In just the short time the new staff has been put in place, the number of participants rose to 30.
“The team is definitely more together and united,” senior Anna Gross said. “Last year, we had one freshman. Now we have eight. As a senior, helping the younger swimmers helps me build my character and it allows me and all of the other seniors see what it takes to contribute and lead.”
Gross is one of the few seniors who have competed for the Pride all four years. No matter how few swimmers came out for the team, she was always there. That resulted in her competing in several events early on in her career and to this day.
Nyheim-Canales has leaned upon her and fellow senior Kyle Young for leadership among the athletes. Not only do they lead by example for the younger swimmers, but they also help lead the team’s two special needs athletes as well, making them feel welcome and part of the team.
To them, leading has become sort of a natural ability. Especially given how much the team has changed year after year.
Gross and Young know this team may not see instant success. They understand it may take time. They all aspire to qualify for the state meet this upcoming season.
Their main goal now is to do what it takes to get there and compete to the best of their ability when the time comes. Arguably the most important aspect of this season for them is to just have fun and swim. Especially with the pandemic, they no longer take the sport for granted.
“This season, we are getting our feet under ourselves,” Young said. “I definitely think we will show out at our invitationals and earn state bids. But showing these younger swimmers what it takes and how to be competitive and successful is a big deal. That’s something we are definitely all still doing.”
Gross plans to make the most of this season as it will be the last time she is able to swim with her sister, Aubrey, who is a freshman this year. Nyheim-Canales wants this to be an enjoyable year for the entire team, dive included. She praised them for how well they’ve come together in a short amount of time and for how much they’ve all improved.
Now, with the season just weeks away, she’s excited to see how they are able to compete.
“They’re starting to figure out how to work together, which impresses me,” Nyheim-Canales said. “Our divers are also doing really well. Our goal is to get them to state. We’ll see how it all pans out.”
Mountain Pointe’s first swim meet will take place on Sept. 2 against Corona del Sol.
Other Mountain Pointe fall sports preparing for the season
Mountain Pointe did not have any state qualifiers last season in cross country, a sign of the times for the school which has struggled with participation numbers in distance running and track in recent years. However, the resurgence of the track program in the spring has the Pride hopeful they can see similar participation numbers and be represented in the state championship race. Their first meet is Sept. 8 against Gilbert and Mesquite.
The Mountain Pointe volleyball team struggled to find a rhythm last season after some of its top players elected to sit out the season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Senior Alyssa Groves, who had 34 kills for the Pride last season, returns for her senior year under new head coach Justine Ackie, who took over for Andrew Yamashiro after two seasons. The Pride tip off the Season on Aug. 31 against Basha.
The Mountain Pointe golf program has struggled to qualify golfers for state in recent years. The team was last represented in 2018 by Aubrey Coutts on the girls’ side and in 2017 by Zack Ramseyer in 2017 for the boys. Mountain Pointe’s boys’ golf team teed off for the first time this season on Tuesday against Saguaro and Arcadia. The girls face Desert Ridge and Basha on Wednesday.
The Mountain Pointe badminton team didn’t make the state playoffs after a difficult COVID-19 year. The Pride hope to bounce back and make their way into the postseason as a team for the first time since 2014. In 2017, the Pride were represented in the singles tournament. The team’s first match is set for Aug. 31 against South Mountain.
A full preview for the Mountain Pointe football program will be published in the Sept. 1 edition of the Ahwatukee Foothills News.