The three-week spring football session may have never been this important in the East Valley.
And not just because new rules allow for some physical contact with the advent of blocking dummies and shields.
When there are 10 new head coaches needing to get a lot accomplished in this semi-introductory period, it no longer becomes just about conditioning, running plays through cones and starting some position battle competitions.
It’s about getting to know each other, building trust, shaping how the program is run, setting expectations and implementing schemes.
Beginning Monday, the next three weeks become a vital time for some pretty prominent programs in the East Valley.
Mountain View (Chad DeGrenier), Chandler (Shaun Aguano), Corona del Sol (Tom Joseph), Mesquite (Matt Gracey), Apache Junction (Jason MacDonald), Scottsdale Christian (Willie Dudley), Cactus Shadows (Greg Davis), St. Mary’s (Todd Williamson), Higley (Eddy Zubey) and McClintock (Matt Lewis) are all going through transition at the top.
DeGrenier moved from Cactus Shadows to Mountain View and is excited to get the chance to have spring ball with the Toros because he didn’t have that luxury when he was hired at Cactus Shadows before the 2005-06 season.
“It was a baptism by fire,” he recalled. “I am forever grateful for getting the opportunity (at Cave Creek) but it wasn’t the ideal situation to start. Getting a chance to work with this group this early is a huge difference. I’ve only seen them four or six times up until now so the daily interaction is something we need to do to get to know each other.”
DeGrenier went 5-6 his first season with a Cactus Shadows program that was 0-10 the previous year, and then won the Class 4A Division II title in his second with a 15-0 season in 2006.
Whether or not the same type of turnaround can happen at Mountain View, coming off its first losing season, remains to be seen. But getting the chance to implement DeGrenier’s spread offense, based partially on his time as an Arena Football League quarterback, to a traditionally run-first program is just as important as building relationships.
“We are going to spread them out but we are going to do what we need to do to be successful,” DeGrenier said. “If that means run the ball then we will run the ball. If that means pass then we will pass. That’s the point of this week to find out these things. We have to come together as a staff, mesh the new with the old, and then build toward the future.
“It’s an exciting time for all of us.”
What is not as exciting for some coaches is going to be the commute. They might be coaching in a new place, but chances are they are still teaching at their old school.
For instance, Eddy Zubey is finishing the school year teaching at St. Mary’s but regularly commutes to his new job at Higley. DeGrenier has an 88-mile round trip from Cave Creek to Mesa. As tough as that might sound, especially with gas prices approaching $4 per gallon, DeGrenier has nothing on new Mesquite coach Matt Gracey.
Gracey currently teaches at Sherman E. Burroughs High School in Ridgecrest, Calif., since his contract runs into June. He plans on coming in for the Saturday practices and has about a 7 1/2-hour drive ahead of him each way.
“It’s not ideal, of course, and I will miss 15 hours of grading papers each weekend, but this is where I want to be and this is the concession my family and I have to make,” said Gracey, who replaces the retired Mike Reardon. “It is well worth the price to be around the players and coaches and to see how the development is going.”
Taking over during his absence will be longtime assistant Leland Rodgers with help from former Wildcats and current assistants Bryce and Beaux Kapr along with Don Hornbeck.
Many head coaches are control freaks. They don’t always like letting someone else drive the car so to speak. But Gracey said the thought of being away from the team would have bothered him much more 10 years ago.
“With the technology we have today, I can Skype with the coaches, even watch video with them and get a good feel for what is happening,” Gracey said. “We will make the best of it until I get there each Saturday.”
Not every transition is about getting to know the players.
Chandler’s Shaun Aquano was an assistant at the school for 10 years, including offensive coordinator for the last six years, before taking over for the retired Jim Ewan.
“It think that is a huge advantage because we all know what to expect from each other and already have an idea what the players can do,” he said.
That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes, but the hope is the trust factor is already built in instead of having to foster it.
“We are going to try and shore up the defense,” he said. “We have had the offensive weapons the last few years, but we want to have a different attitude on defense and we should have a pretty good team.”
The 10 new coaches can only hope the transition goes as smooth as it did for Mountain Pointe’s Norris Vaughan.
Vaughan is heading into his third season with the Pride after moving from Wickenburg, but said the success of the last two seasons, ending in the state semifinals each year, wouldn’t have been possible without that first spring session.
“The main thing was letting them know how I like to operate and changing the culture,” he said. “If they didn’t like it they might as well quit and go somewhere else. It was about establishing ground rules and letting them know how things were going to work. We lost two starters before we ever had a scrimmage, but we were better off for it.”
Now headed to Arizona State this fall, Mountain Pointe senior Izzy Marshall said it was clear that Vaughan was bringing a new, hard-core attitude to the program that changed the way they felt about each other.
“The first day Coach Vaughan came in he brought a winning attitude with him and would not settle for anything less,” Marshall said. “I remember the first day he said, ‘We will be winners, as long as everyone is willing to sacrifice for each other.’”
Similar sacrifices for 10 programs begin Monday. And how the next 21 days play out just might determine how quickly success comes in August camps, let alone this fall.
“They will get to know who I am through my offensive (spread) system,” Gracey said. “We are going to have a good time, but yet be meticulous. This is an incredibly important time and I can’t wait for the school year to be over so I can be there full-time, but until then the next few weeks will go a long way in shaping who we are in the years to come.”