When one hears the words, “junior college athletics,” they tend to underestimate the impact this transitional level of competition can have on a student athlete on and off the field.
For the Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference, commonly known as HJCAC, coaches have made it an utmost priority to sculpt their players into not only well-rounded athletes, but also respectable members of society.
In 2019, the league was founded by former community college coaches, Doug Madoski and executive director, Steven Weiss. A year prior, the Maricopa Community Colleges decided to drop junior college football due to financial reasons stemming from the Arizona legislature eliminating state funding. After hearing the news, Madoski and Weiss hopped over to the drawing board and figured out a way to provide a collaborative experience that focused on academic and athletic growth.
“We looked at it like, just because the current community college structure wasn't interested in maintaining opportunities for those student athletes, didn't mean that those opportunities had to go away,” Weiss said. “So, we did what we could to get creative to find a way that maintains those opportunities and continues to offer an advancement for young people's academic future.”
The two of them planted the seed and have watched it grow into a conference that currently consists of five teams including the Maricopa Mustangs, Salt River Scorpions, Gila River Hawks, Papago Pumas and the Sonoran Sidewinders. They launched with four total teams across the East and West Valley and have since expanded all the way to Tucson to incorporate the Sidewinders into the fold.
All five head coaches have not only led football teams in the past, but some have taken the junior college route themselves and have that unique perspective to instill in their players.
Brandon Payne, head coach of the Papago Pumas, is just one of many coaches that has walked the junior college path and knows what it takes to make it to the next level. A Texas native, Payne started his playing career at Blinn Junior College in Brenham, Texas. As a dominant cornerback, he led the team in interceptions before going on to play at the University of New Mexico.
Now, he’s hoping to help players have a similar path he did.
“This is my passion to see these guys grind because Juco football is one of the most grinding levels of football that you can coach,” Payne said. “My biggest reward and these guys biggest reward is to get them to the next level.”
These players come from a variation of backgrounds, and each player’s reasoning for playing in the conference is vastly different.
Some did not have the grades to play at a four-year university. Others struggled financially to compete at the next level without scholarships. A select few players are using the league as a segway from one university to the other.
For former Salt River Scorpions quarterback Ty Perry, his path to the junior college league was unlike most players.
As a 5-foot-10 quarterback out of high school, he was not recruited as highly as he expected. Perry was a consistent 4.0 student and looked at the Hohokam Conference as a perfect way to improve on his playing ability while also gaining more traction on the recruiting front.
The pandemic fell right into his recruiting window, and the hope was to spend a year playing junior college football while waiting on pins and needles for that opportunity to arise. Though that was not the exact path he envisioned, the experience was not just gratifying on the athletic side of things, but it gave him a new perspective on life.
“For a kid like me, I think this is probably the greatest experience I’ve ever had just because I'm around kids I've never been around before,” Perry said. “I come from a nice part of Arizona. There's not anybody asking for money on the corner of my street, but I go out there to south Phoenix and I'm with kids from downtown Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. They've got some stories, like there's kids on the team that have like some crazy things they have endured, but it's just cool.
“It's cool being around that because you learn how to act around those types of people, and you learn how to deal with them differently.”
When it comes to academics, grades and overall education is just as important as the players lacing up the cleats and going to battle on the field. Of course, a vast majority of these players are playing with hopes of reaching the next level.
But building these student athletes into well-rounded contributors to society is key to their strategy.
The league has made a deal with Snow College out of Ephraim, Utah. It provides the players with another opportunity to receive a low-cost education that ties into the payment to play. Even if players choose not to attend Snow, they still have eligibility to attend a local Maricopa Community College if they choose to go that route.
Alec Horne, the associate head coach of the Salt River Scorpions, knows how crucial the partnership is with Snow College, and having that backing of a school is a major part of the endless academic opportunities that these players are taking advantage of.
“I've kind of seen how it's evolved and getting that Snow College deal done was an amazing thing for the league,” Horne said. “The fact you have a school backing you with academic support is huge. We've had counselors come down here to get kids registered for their classes. We also had counselors come out here in the middle of the season to have one on one meetings with players and check in on their progress.
“So, they're making huge leaps and bounds to make this program successful.”
The conference has blossomed into a well-oiled machine that has been able to recruit many student athletes. It has also allowed for maximum exposure by streaming games on The Varsity Sports Show.
Horne said the positive impact on players has been rewarding for him and other coaches.
“I wanted to help because I've coached players that maybe didn't have the size or the grades, or they just weren't ready maturity wise,” Horne said. “I like seeing the kids come in and when they leave being completely turned around and wanting to go back to where they're from to encourage other people to join in and build a better community.”