When it comes to boys soccer in the 5A East Valley Region, Mesa High coach T.J. Hagen is the old man on the block, even if he doesn’t look much older than his players.
“When I took over this team, I was 22,” said Hagen, now a young 32, but still the longest-tenured boys coach in the East Valley Region.
Over the past three seasons, Hagen, who won his 100th game at Mesa Saturday afternoon, and his Jackrabbits have changed their tune, from a program long entrenched in mediocrity amidst the Mesa schools to a region champion and legitimate state title contender.
While powers like Red Mountain, Mountain View and Dobson have combined to reach eight of the last 14 5A state title games, Mesa (21-2) has quietly built itself into the cream of the East Valley Region crop, culminated by Saturday’s 2-1 win over Skyline for the region tournament championship.
“I honestly don’t have a simple answer,” Hagen said of the turnaround of a program that won just 48 games during his first seven seasons — finishing at or under .500 every season — but has since gone 13-7, 18-3 and 21-2, combining to win 52 times.
“I guess I’d have to say it’s been our commitment to strength and conditioning,” he said, citing the work of Mesa strength coach Doug Larish. “I think 10 years ago when I started, I envisioned us doing great things all the time. It may have taken a few years, but I can’t say how happy I am to see what our team has become.”
Players say Hagen has been successful as a coach simply because he knows how to relate to them.
“He breaks things down for us so well,” said junior goalkeeper Dustin Clarke, who’s paced the Jackrabbits this season alongside junior defender Ricky Lutz and junior midfielder Edy Farfan, who leads the team with a school-record 22 goals so far.
Hagen said he doesn’t know if he would consider Mesa “a team to beat” when the sixth-seeded Jackrabbits open tournament play at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, hosting 11th-seeded Dobson.
“But can you call us a dark horse? I’m not sure I would,” he added.
In some respects, Hagen isn’t much different than those who play for him. He still makes sure to get a say on what movie the team watches on the bus ride home after long road games, and his mom still makes it to any game she can.
“I always knew he would be here,” Judy Hagen said of her son’s commitment to coaching and teaching biology at Mesa.
T.J. Hagen knew it too, even when he was contacted about taking over the boys soccer program at Skyline when the school opened in 1999. Hagen lives only a couple of blocks from the Skyline campus, but he couldn’t bring himself to leave the school and soccer program he’s been a part of for more than half of his life, first as a player in the early 1990s.
“I’m a Jackrabbit at heart,” he said.