Zone Read: Chasing Early September

Arizona Sports News online

Not sure about you, but we here at the “Zone Read” are still nursing our mid-week Suns’ hangover.

Sports offer no guarantees but being a part of the tital wave can be quite a ride, can’t it?

Every single Arizona high school football team is looking to march to a championship, including one west Valley school who, much like the Suns, came up just short of hoisting a trophy last winter.

Let’s start there.

It’s a Numbers Game

The Cactus Cobras are part of a unique 4A fraternity.

Not only is the tradition-rich football power absolutely loaded with returning talent as they hope to hoist another gold ball later this year, they’re also one of the few 4A schools which still has a junior varsity team.

Most Arizona schools at that level simply don’t have enough players to field teams at the JV level and have a JVB (Junior Varsity B) team which is a mix of both freshmen and sophomores.  

It’s an ugly trend many 4A and lower classification schools, with shrinking enrollments, will face moving forward.

It makes for some difficult times for Cactus, and any other smaller school, which does have a full junior varsity squad.

“It’s so hard to find opponents for them,” Cobras head coach Joseph Ortiz explained to the “Zone Read.” “We’re working on [their] schedule now. We only have three games scheduled but we will make a full schedule for these kids, hopefully.”

The JV Cobras will likely have to “schedule up” and have been talking to bigger programs in hopes of filling out a full schedule with the season now just around the corner.”

Some bigger schools aren’t immune to the JV numbers crunch, either – including one legacy program which simply won’t have enough players to compete at that level this fall. More on that in a future “Zone Read.”

Ortiz is grateful for his players’ buy-in at all levels, including junior varsity.

“The JV helps the varsity a lot in practices and giving us quality [scout] looks,” he noted. “The tradition I feel is a big part of having all three teams (freshman, junior varsity, varsity). To have three teams and be one of the smallest enrollments in 4A is a testament to the kids and how they want to be a part of the Cactus tradition.”

Sound of Thunder

We here at the “Zone Read” know great coaches and leaders of young men when we see them.

The AZHS football community got an up close and personal look at the job Ty Wisdom and his talented staff did turning around Horizon from a zero-win team in 2015, the year before he arrived from Valley Vista, to an Open Division birth just four years later.

Now he’s facing the same type of task at Desert Vista – a more tradition state power – who has fallen on tough times the past few years, including a COVID-shortened, injury depleted, 0-6 2019. 

Earlier this week, the Thunder concluded their summer camp stay in Eagar, and Wisdom liked what he saw from his Thunder group.

“We had a great camp,”  Wisdom said to the “Zone Read” from the bus on the way back to the Valley. “The boys were tested a lot, both mentally and physically, and exceeded the staffs expectations.”

Wisdom believes their biggest growth may have come between the ears. Not only is DV installing an entirely new system, the Thunder practiced three times a day at camp and, according to their head coach, were able to “maintain that purpose and mindset of the big picture.”

While three-star running back Devon Grubbs, and 6-foot-6, 275-pound mauler Jai Rodriguez, get most of the headlines – a handful of other seniors, including defensive linemen Jack Saron and Fischer Hawkes, as well as offensive linemen AJ Minkus and David Nation all stood out this summer.

“I feel that this team continues to get better each day and embrace the work we ask of them,” Wisdom said. “We talk a lot about productive discomfort. They embraced that the last three days [at camp].”

DV’s schedule includes some big road blocks (Highland, Basha, Hamilton) but don’t be surprised to see Wisdom’s tempo, spread attack find its footing as the season progresses.

Let’s Play Two 

Another first-year coach at a new program ramping up for the upcoming season is Patrick Nugent.

Except, things are a little different at southeast Tucson’s newly minted Mica Mountain High School.

“We will be playing two varsity, seven junior varsity and nine freshman games,” Nugent said to the “Zone Read.” “It’s been tough leaving a great program like Cienega. We have to have patience here but the facilities and the excitement of what the future looks like has been great.”

After seven seasons, six as head coach, Nugent resigned from Cienega in early January of 2021. He posted a 48-14 record at the school and led the Bobcats to back-to-back 5A state semifinal appearances.

Now, with only a handful of upperclassmen on campus, the challenge is unique, yet invigorating for one of the top coaches in Arizona. 

“We are slowly building things here at Mica Mountain,” Nugent explained. “Our numbers are great and the future is bright.”

The program will certainly be a destination point for top players because of Nugent’s track record of success, as well as the school’s sparkling new campus and facilities.

The current 4A Thunderbolts are a member of the Vail Unified School District.