The 2020 season was an anomaly for the Desert Ridge High School football program.
Not only did it deal with a small breakout of COVID-19 cases within the program that forced the cancellation of two games, but the team finished with its worst record ever under former coach Jeremy Hathcock. At 1-5, it was also the first time in Hathcock’s 15-year tenure the Jaguars didn’t make the postseason.
Hathcock, a beloved figure in the Desert Ridge community, stepped down after the 2020 season and was later named athletic director and head football coach at Blue Ridge High School in Pinetop-Lakeside, his alma mater. That paved the way for Roy Lopez, a well-respected coach from his time at Marcos de Niza, Sunnyside in Tucson and most recently, Tolleson, to take over in January.
Now a month away from the start of the new season, players feel the program has returned to its blue-collar roots.
“We are tough, and we are physical,” senior defensive end and Washington commit Lance Holtzclaw said. “Every game is going to be a battle. We’ve been working toward improving since our final game last year. We know we have to work hard to get to where we want to be.”
Holtzclaw, who gained the nickname “Showtime” in the sixth grade for his love of being on camera, said the new coaching staff – which features some coaches from Hathcock’s tenure – hit the ground running in January.
The team immediately began a new workout program that was led in part by Lopez’s nephew, Marcos Esquivel, who owns MDE Athletics in Chandler. At times, players would come in on during open weight room sessions. They all wanted to improve after an abysmal 2020 season.
The team began spring workouts on the field shortly after Lopez was hired. By the time school ended and the team’s summer curriculum began, practices were moved to 5:30 in the morning. It took some adjustment, but the players bought into the schedule change.
Overall, a new mindset was established within the program.
“I feel like we’ve kind of gotten the best of both worlds,” senior defensive back Roman Mangini said. “We came in and we had coach Hathcock who was hard on us and crazy in a good way. Now we have coach Roy who is also crazy in his own way.
“So, we got the best of both worlds and we are already trained for the type of work they put on us. We are mentally there. Now we are just trying to teach the young fellas how to do it the same way we did coming up.”
One aspect that has carried over from the previous staff is Desert Ridge’s success finding next-level programs for its players. Hathcock’s two sons Alec and Koby went on to play football at the next level. Hathcock was also responsible for helping develop players like Alex Barrett, who currently plays for the San Francisco 49ers.
Lopez has also had his success in placing players at Division I colleges.
His son, Roy Jr., who graduated from Mesquite in 2016, was recently selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Houston Texans. Lopez said he expects his son to be in the second-team rotation of defensive linemen.
Having yet another coach with connections is key for players such as Holtzclaw, Mangini and senior defensive back KJ Miniefield, whose recruitment has picked up steam as of late.
“(Lopez) has that experience, we knew that just from his background,” Miniefield said. “Just seeing the players (Roy Jr.) has worked with – Byron Murphy, N’Keal Harry – great players from Arizona. I think he can really help our program.”
Even before summer workouts began, Lopez was proud of the way his players responded to him and the new coaches on staff. They immediately bought in to the new philosophies and mindset established within the program.
The seniors, especially Holtzclaw, Mangini and Miniefield, have all become examples for players in classes before them. Afterall, while the staff is mostly different, the same hard-work mentality remains. With that, the team’s confidence has once again grown.
“We are going to be mentally and physically ready,” Lopez said. “Last year, it was uncharted waters for everyone. And going 1-6, it’s not something this program is used to. They know the frame of mind must be different. I’ve seen a growth in their confidence level, which needs to be through the sky.”
I believe the team concepts are starting to come together. We still have a lot of work to do between now and Sept. 3. But we want all our players to grow at the same pace. We are a band of brothers. That’s what we live by.
Lopez knows what this Desert Ridge program is capable of. He saw it compete for two state championships during Hathcock’s tenure. Now, they are focused on what it will take to get back to that level.
But Lopez hasn’t set the Open Division or 6A championship as a goal for his program. He aims to get better one day at a time and re-establish what Desert Ridge has been known for: physicality.
“Our main focus is being the best we can possibly be and do what we do well,” Lopez said. “People know what we do well. We’re coming.”