George Hawthorne and his Skyline football players are fed up with being perceived as the doormats of the East Valley.
Gone is the accepting mindset from Hawthorne regarding undisciplined players, blowout losses and weak mindsets. Now in his third season leading the Coyotes, Hawthorne is determined to set a new standard, one that focuses on discipline both on and off the field.
The Coyotes have taken strides toward achieving that standard this offseason. But there’s still work to be done.
“Undisciplined teams don’t win football games,” Hawthorne told his players after a recent summer practice. “Discipline is important in anything you do. If you knew you had somewhere to be and had a schedule to uphold but didn’t, you wouldn’t be very successful. It is the same thing with football.
“If you’re not disciplined you can’t be trusted. If you can’t be trusted, you won’t have a successful football program.”
Skyline, one of the newer schools in the Mesa district, has always had trouble building its athletics programs to the same level as its counterparts. In 2019, the basketball program had its best season ever, advancing to the 6A semifinals before falling to eventual champion Desert Vista. Under former coach Pat Herrera, the baseball program made a run to the semifinals in 2016.
The wrestling program received accolades thanks to Julia Chambers, who along with a few other female athletes helped build girls wrestling in the state. Chamber also competed in a variety of other sports, including football and softball during her four years at Skyline.
The Coyote football program saw its best stretch from 2013-17, where the team made the playoffs each year under former coach Angelo Paffumi and finished with double-digit wins in back-to-back seasons. In 2015 Skyline finished 12-1 on the year, losing only to Marcos de Niza in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs in an upset.
Skyline’s last playoff appearance came in 2018. Since then, the program has gone 9-19. This year’s group of seniors hope they will finally be able to turn things around.
“It would mean everything,” junior linebacker Christian Coltellaro said. “We want to put this school, this program back on the map. Everyone has to give 100 percent of their effort. We can’t do it if not everybody is willing to put in the work.”
Coltellaro is one of the players who has stuck it out in the program to this point. As a freshman, he estimates he came into the program with 55 other players. Less than 20 stuck with the sport.
He knows football isn’t for everyone and losing can take its toll. But he and Skyline’s two other starting linebackers, senior Jared Anderson and junior Jace Hardin, have bought in to Hawthorne’s vision with the program — a physical presence that won’t get pushed around.
They may not have the same size as some of the other schools in the area and East Valley but they are a scrappy bunch who have taken the offseason to not only better themselves physically in the weight room but mentally, too.
“We’ve done everything we can to get better in the weight room,” Anderson said. “I think camp also made a big difference. It brought all of us together and we don’t think of each other as being in separate classes anymore. We are all a family.”
Hawthorne put up with many players being undisciplined during his first two seasons. He allowed the likes of former captains Zeke Branham and Alex Sanchez, who both now play at the Division I level, take control of the team.
At the time, they were two of the most established veterans in the program. The younger players naturally fed off their energy, even when both would tend to lead by example rather than vocally.
“They taught us to try and excel at everything we do,” Hardin said. “They were both very humble. The senior class last year, they were kind of separated from everyone else. But not those two. They made sure to include everyone younger than them and show us the way.”
All of Skyline’s players are confident they can break through and compete for a playoff spot this season. Do they expect to win a title? No. They understand that will still take time.
But they want this year’s senior class to be the one that finally turns things around for a struggling program. Hawthorne is not only confident in himself as a coach and those on his staff to make the Coyotes competitive this season, but he has faith in the players, too.
“We will be disciplined and have a high motor,” Hawthorne said. “We expect everybody to do their job, including coaches. I believe we will see fan support increase. People will start to understand where Skyline is.
“I know we will be placed on a map this year and placed on a map for great reasons. We won’t be pushed around.”