The revelations that an Ahwatukee football coach leaked game strategies to opposing teams for three years sent East Valley school districts scrambling to assess what their coaches knew about and did with the information.
Some schools came forward and said coaches received but ignored emails from an anonymous account traced to Mountain Pointe coach Justin Hager.
Hager was hired as the varsity girls basketball coach at Mountain Pointe in 2016. He was also an assistant coach on the varsity football team.
Tempe Union High School District revealed on Sept. 16 that Hager had sent “hundreds” of emails containing play calls, strategy, formations and at one point, a list of ineligible players to opposing coaches – including some in Gilbert.
Among the coaches who received emails were former Chandler High School head football coach Shaun Aguano, Highland High head football coach Brock Farrel, Desert Ridge head football coach Jeremy Hathcock and Perry head football coach Preston Jones.
It wasn’t until Mountain Pointe’s football team played Faith Lutheran in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Aug. 23 that Pride coach Rich Wellbrock was notified of the anonymous emails.
Faith Lutheran head coach Vernon Fox responded to Hager – who used the email address firstname.lastname@example.org – that he doesn’t “believe in cheating.”
Hager resigned on Friday, Sept. 13 from his position as coach and teacher at Mountain Pointe. But the Tempe Union Governing Board five days later refused to accept it and set in motion Hager’s firing next month.
“To me, this unprofessional conduct he demonstrated has ramifications that we may not see initially,” board member Michelle Helm said, adding:
“I feel like our community wouldn’t have seen a resignation as enough. People submit resignations all the time for a variety of reasons, so how is anybody to know what he had done if we let his resignation go through? I was afraid our community and others wouldn’t really know the extent of the harm he created.”
Tempe Union Athletic Director Bruce Kipper told David Hines, the executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, that emails from the walterpayton12 account to several Arizona coaches some out of state.
Kipper told Hines that district employees had witnessed several more emails from the account, but they could not be retrieved because the account had been shut down.
Tempe Union officials have asked the AIA to investigate since the governing agency for intermural sports in Arizona.
“Like any other thing that is brought to our attention, we are going to take the facts that we have, and we will forward them to the schools we have information on,” Hines said. “We will have them investigate the situation at their school and then we will have them report back to us.”
“It’s frustrating,” Hines added. “We have been spending a lot of time talking about sportsmanship and educational athletics. We want to be competitive, but this is about the kids. We want a level playing field as much as possible.”
According to emails released by Tempe Union officials, Jones was the only coach to respond to the anonymous address.
The emails show a message from WalterPayton12 sent on Nov. 14, 2017, explaining that 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 that 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 that neither Jones nor basketball coach Sam Duane used information sent them by walterpayton12.
According to Serrano, the email sent to Duane involved a Mountain Pointe player that walterpayton12 said would not play against Perry in the 6A playoff game last February. However, the player named in the email played the entire game.
Gilbert Public Schools asked principals and athletic directors at Highland and Desert Ridge to follow up with coaches that received emails from the anonymous account. The district has not commented.
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.”
Pinnacle head basketball coach Charlie Wilde and head football coach Dana Zupke also received emails from walterpayton12.
On Tuesday, the Paradise Valley Unified School District announced that neither Zupke nor Wilde had used any of the information.
They also provided evidence that Zupke had forwarded the emails to Wellbrock the day after Mountain Pointe and Pinnacle played in the second week of the season. Pinnacle beat Mountain Pointe 40-0.
“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.
“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.”
A motive for Hager’s actions is unknown. But it sparked outrage among former Mountain Pointe players, family members and others involved in prep athletics in Arizona.
One former player said on Twitter he “couldn’t believe he would do such a terrible thing,” while a family member expressed discontent with possible opportunities that were lost due to Hager’s actions.
During the investigation, former Mountain Pointe basketball coach Duane Eason, who coaches the Pride in the 2017 6A state title game against Pinnacle, said he was asked “informal” questions about Hager.
Eason said the two often spoke about basketball and coaching techniques. He said he considered Hager a friend.
“When you share a gym, you’re together all the time. You share a lot because you’re there while the other practices and you’re always talking strategy,” Eason said.
Eason doesn’t blame the emails for his team’s loss.
“I don’t know how much it made an impact because the kids still have to go out there and execute the game plan, but it’s definitely puzzling,” Eason said.
In three seasons as head coach of the girls’ basketball program, Hager led the Pride to a 64-31 overall record.
He led the girls to the postseason all three years, including the state semifinals in the 2016-17 season. Hager was also an assistant coach under Vaughan and Wellbrock for the varsity football program.
“In the Tempe Union High School District, we have a set of core values and beliefs that that guide everything we do,” Kipper wrote in the letter sent to the AIA. “First and foremost, we put ‘students first’ in all we do and expect all employees to behave with ‘integrity’ in all they do and say.
“We value truthfulness and trustworthiness and we take responsibility for our actions.”
Staff writer Eric Newman contributed to this report.