The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on schools and athletic programs since it began in March 2020.
The spring season was canceled that year. Fall sports programs that summer were barred from having even a remotely normal offseason schedule. That carried over into the winter before spring sports, two years removed from competition, saw a break in cases. Even before the pandemic, schools were seeing less athletes participate in sports. Lower-level football programs were merged or canceled, and schools eliminated some sports all together.
That was worsened by restrictions and some level of fear toward COVID-19. But as fall sports begin to kick off once again across the East Valley, Westwood, one of the oldest schools in Mesa Public Schools, is thriving.
“Not only is our enrollment up but our participation is up,” Westwood Athletic Director Brady Pond said. “We’ve done a really good job of recruiting on campus and hiring coaches as teachers and teachers as coaches. We are all tied into the community.”
There have been 175 newly registered fall athletes in the last three years at Westwood. Bond gives credit to the coaches on staff for that growth.
Kyle Ide, now in his fifth year leading the Warrior football program, said most of his coaches are on campus and have a gift of finding athletes in the school. He said it’s not uncommon for new players to show up after one of his assistants approach them in the school hallways. All three levels – varsity, junior varsity and freshman – have at least 40 or more players on the roster.
Some schools, where participation numbers are decreasing, have been forced to merge lower-level teams.
“Our numbers have been good, our commitment has been good, there’s a lot of really good things happening,” Ide said. “When I got the job, I think there was maybe me and one other guy on staff. Now we have maybe 10. And they’re all really good about connecting with kids on campus. It’s still hard. We’ve lost some kids because it’s hot. But our numbers overall are good.”
Similar growth has been seen in the volleyball program, where Westwood alum Laurel Beisner has seen first-hand how participation numbers in the program have fluctuated.
She was part of Westwood’s only championship volleyball team in 1994. She is determined to help lead the Lady Warriors back to the top of the 6A Conference. But to get there, it starts with the lower levels and club volleyball teams feeding athletes into the program. That has been Beisner’s main goal since she was hired to take over the volleyball program.
Finally, it seems to be paying off.
“We are starting them young to the point where when they get here, they already know how to play and are comfortable being in the programs,” Beisner said. “Being able to run clubs during the offseason has been huge for us. We don’t have as much money as some other schools, but we find ways to provide opportunities for a diverse population of students. I take pride in Westwood.”
Hiring coaches who graduated from Westwood has been key for Pond. It creates a different level of comradery within the athletics department. Athletes tend to trust their coaches more when they can relate on more than just the sport itself. These coaches truly understand what it’s like to walk the halls as a student.
Along with Ide and Beisner, the head coaches of the cross country, soccer, badminton and boys volleyball are all Westwood alums.
“It’s something cool where I think when the kids who go to the school find out their coaches played here, they want to see what it is all about,” Pond said. “The kids want to play for them. At the end of the day, we will win some and lose some. As long as they are learning the things they learned when they went here, that’s what is most important.”
Desert Ridge’s fall 2020 campaign saw 11 of swimmers or relay teams place in the top 10 of their respective events, including a first-place finish in girls’ 1-meter diving by Alexandra Robertson and two-time state champion Essias Smith. Head coach Brock Harr has become one of the top coaches in the state in recent years and will have his team once again primed to compete for a title.
Dobson’s swim program saw some success last year from Carson Hamblin, who is now a junior. He will once again be leaned upon by the program to compete for an individual state title in the boys’ 500-yard freestyle, where he placed second last year. The Mustangs will look to rebound from a tough year that included a winless girls’ volleyball team and no state placers in cross country or swim.
In just its second year of existence, Eastmark High School has started to make a name for itself in the athletics community. The girls’ volleyball program, with all freshmen, sophomores and one junior, went 7-8 overall in the regular season. Now, that entire team returns, including sophomore outside hitter Kayla Wheaton, who led the team with 136 kills last season. Like the volleyball team, all Eastmark sports programs are still building. There has not been a graduating class as of yet, which could result in more competitive Firebird teams this season.
Mesa’s girls volleyball program, a perennial contender in the 6A Conference, is under new leadership this season after legendary coach Vee Hiapo made the move from Williams Field. She inherits a team that made it to the postseason last year but fell in the opening round. The team’s top leaders in kills from last season, Jazlyn Jackson and Quincy Cummard, return for their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Mesa hopes for more success in its other fall sports programs after a difficult 2020 season.
Mountain View’s cross country program had a strong showing in 2020, with the boys’ placing sixth overall and the girls seventh. Tessa Christiansen, as a freshman, led the way for the Lady Toros. The Mountain View volleyball program had one of its best seasons ever at 16-3 overall. With several returning varsity players, the Toros are poised for another big season on the court. The Mountain View swim team, a perennial contender, saw 16 of its swimmers place in the top 10 but will have to replace star Emma Becker, who finished her high school career with a state title in the 100-yard breaststroke.
Red Mountain’s boys golf program looks to improve on its ninth-place finish last season with returning starters. Noah Czajkowski, a state champion track runner, will once again be leaned upon by the Red Mountain cross country team. Last year, he placed fourth overall in the state final, which helped the Mountain Lions place fourth in the team rankings. The swim program also looks to build off a successful 2021 campaign. Last year, the girls placed third overall while the boys placed seventh. Trevor Dixon, Sophia Jahn and several other swimmers who hold places in the Red Mountain record books, will return this season.
The Skyline girls volleyball program struggled to find a rhythm last year, winning just two games. However, the Coyotes return most of their starters, including Rebekah O’Day, Janae Moore and Faith Murray, who combined for 182 kills last season. The Skyline cross country team will look to build off its ninth-place finish last season but will have to do so without its top two runners from last season. Diego Brown, a junior was the third-best runner on the team and will be leaned upon to improve in his third high school season.