From his shirt, to his shoes, to the bands wrapped around his wrists, there is seldom a day that goes by that Mesa High boys soccer coach TJ Hagen isn’t wearing a color that represents the Jackrabbits.
That’s how it’s been since he played soccer for Mesa in the late 80s to early 90s, and his pride for the school has only grown stronger throughout his 24-year tenure coaching and teaching biology there.
“I wear it anytime and anywhere,” Hagen said. “I think my team knows that and that’s one of the things I’m proud of. When I go to school to teach, they know I care about being there. They know I’m a part of the school and have pride that I was a student there.”
Hagen played collegiate soccer at the University of Arizona for a year after high school before spending his next four seasons with Arizona State. He was hired to teach at his alma mater in 1996 after graduating from ASU. Shortly after, he took over the soccer program but struggled early on.
It wasn’t until the 2000s that Hagen and Mesa’s soccer program began to have success on the pitch. Now, he has over 200 wins under his belt and several Coach of the Year honors.
But the one thing he has yet to win as head coach of the Mesa soccer program is a state title. That, combined with his passion for the school, has been key to him remaining with the program for over two decades.
“I’ve had years in the past where schools will come and ask if I’m interested,” Hagen said. “But I don’t want to go anywhere. We don’t have a state title to our name which I think drives me and these guys even more.”
The Mesa program is led this season by a pair of veteran captains in seniors Tony Perez and Brayan Susano, as well as sophomore Easton Elzinga.
Each player was voted into the captain’s role by their teammates, which Elzinga admits was a bit of a surprise given his relatively young age on a varsity roster.
“You feel out of place, telling the older kids what to do,” Elzinga said. “It can be hard but since it was a team vote, I know they respect me. I would say I’m just as close with all of the seniors as I am with the kids younger than me.
“It’s hard, but it’s helped me mature and grow up fast.”
Elzinga has had help adjusting to his role as a leader from both Perez and Susana. The pair were captains last year as juniors and were groomed by seniors to step into those roles the two years prior.
But they even admit they have seen a change in how they play and lead the team from when they were juniors.
“We looked up to senior captains two years ago and seeing them progress through their years, we learned from them,” Susano said. “It helped us be better captains for these guys now. We know we have to step up and take care of our teammates.”
Mesa has gotten off to a strong start this season with a 6-3-1 overall record heading into Friday’s matchup against Basha.
Perez has led the way with goals this season from the striker position. He had seven goals heading into Tuesday’s matchup with La Joya. He was at 32 goals for his career, just one shy of tying the all-time record at Mesa. In the Jackrabbits’ 8-1 win, he scored four goals, breaking the record with half of the season still left to be played.
“I hope I can add more,” Perez said. “The coaches and players put that trust in me, they believe in me. Even if I’m having a bad game, they’re there to lift me up. Even outside the program, my family, my friends, kids around school, they all give me a boost.”
The Mesa soccer program considers themselves a family for a variety of different reasons. From each player’s familiarity with one another having played together for several years to each of their devotion to success and represent the school at a high level.
There’s also the familial aspect of the program that takes on a more literal meaning. While Esperanza is succeeding as a sophomore captain, Hagen’s son, Jordan, is succeeding as a freshman as the team’s starting goalkeeper.
Young or old, veteran or rookie, each member of the Mesa soccer player has a spot on the team. They’ve all come together to help the school capture its first soccer championship. But more than just wanting success for the program, they all want success for their coach that has devoted 24 years of his life in building the program to what it is today.
“We are a family,” Susano said. “We have each other’s backs. Being the leaders of this team, we want to make the best of it.”
Mesa will play Tolleson, Desert Ridge and San Luis before entering region play against Skyline on Jan. 24. The Jackrabbits are chasing their fourth region title in five years but will be challenged by a talented Red Mountain team along with other solid region foes.
Ultimately, however, they aim to achieve more than just a region title.
“That’s the only thing they want this season, is to get that gold ball,” Hagen said. “These players want to come out here and play and do their best.”