In 2011, the storied Mountain View football program finished 4-6, the worst mark in school history.
This is a team which intentionally counts to nine during drills to signify their drive for a ninth state title. Instead, the Toros were home for the playoffs.
In a community where fathers, uncles and brothers of current players are real-life reminders of the glory days, the stress mounted.
“Last year, with the record we had, it was hard to go through,” senior running back Weston Birtcher said. “The (community) loves the program despite the winning or losing and the crowds still showed up so that was great, but there’s the constant pressure, always.”
It was Chad DeGrenier’s first year as coach at a place where the natives become restless quickly.
But he had been in this position before, and now, six games into his second season leading the Toros, the master of the turnaround may be at it again.
Losing seasons aren’t failures in DeGrenier’s world, they are building blocks.
In his first year at Cactus Shadows in 2004, the Falcons went 0-10. The record improved to 5-6 in 2005, and then DeGrenier took the team all the way to the top, finishing 14-0 and capturing the 4A Division II state championship in 2006.
The rebuilding followed, resulting in consecutive 3-7 seasons. Then, in 2009, Cactus Shadows put together an 11-1 mark which included an undefeated regular season and a win over Saguaro.
Doing the same thing at Division I will be much harder with the perennial dominance of teams like Hamilton and Brophy, but if Mountain View follows the same trajectory — and a four-game winning streak gives it hope — DeGrenier may never have to pay for a dinner in Mesa again.
“It’s just hard work,” DeGrenier said. “When I (took the job at Mountain View), I told my wife: ‘I’m diving all in.’ I work tireless hours. I love the thrill of competition. I love these opportunities and I’ve been fortunate to surround myself with some great coaches who have the same feeling. You focus on the things that you think are the most important to get to that point. When they start to click, it’s fun to see.”
This season began slowly with losses to Desert Mountain and Desert Ridge, but the Toros regrouped to cruise past a Skyline team it struggled to put away the year before. DeGrenier sensed a shift after the team’s Week 4 game against Mountain Ridge, when all phases clicked in a 53-14 victory.
“That was the game where we said, ‘OK, we’re getting there,’” DeGrenier said.
Mountain View followed with an easy win over Westwood, and, last Friday, knocked off previously undefeated Pinnacle, 43-31. The win moved the Toros to 4-2 on the year and up to No. 8 in the Division I power rankings.
John Clark has emerged at quarterback, throwing for 1,222 yards with 11 touchdowns despite playing sparingly in the first six quarters of the season. Wide receiver Clark Brown has become a big-play threat every time he touches the ball, as evidenced by his two punt returns for touchdowns against Pinnacle.
The Toros are playing well, and the community is excited.
“At the beginning of the season, you’d hear a lot of negative stuff,” Brown said. “But now we’ve kind of quieted that crowd and it’s more positive, which is exactly what we need.”
Mountain View has its rivalry game against Red Mountain on Friday, and with the teams a combined 9-3, it’s full of both bragging rights and serious playoff implications.
A Toros victory would stun many, but even that and a playoff berth wouldn’t appease this group.
The school has a lofty tradition matched by few programs in the state, and despite the relative lack of success recently, those within the program don’t believe the expectations should drop.
“There’s definitely that good aura of ‘Hey, we’re coming back. We’re going to be back,’” DeGrenier said. “We’ve definitely heard it. But that statement will come to fruition when we win some championships. That’s what it’s about.”
The future seems bright.
Clark is a junior, as is Chase Funk, the incumbent starting QB entering this season, who now platoons under center and plays wideout or running back. The team’s top three receivers are also juniors.
It’s hard not to think of the way DeGrenier did it with Cactus Shadows, from 0-10 to 14-0 in three years.
But the defense is senior-heavy and will take some re-tooling, so there’s no guarantee next year will be better than this one.
Besides, players like Birtcher don’t have the luxury of waiting another season to take a shot. They’ve waited their whole lives for this.
“Obviously, when you’re here, meaning ‘back’ is winning a state championship,” Birtcher said. “That’s Mountain View. Growing up and watching the former players, you want to be a Toro and you want to be a state champion. I’d love to see this group make it back there and put Mountain View back on top.”