Canyon View, Eastmark high schools face additional challenges in starting varsity football programs amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Eastmark High School’s football field, taken in July 2019. Photo by: Brittany Bowyer

Deeply entrenched in each football program is it’s own set of core values and beliefs, which are the very basis everything is constructed upon. For many high school programs, these values and beliefs have been in place for years, dating back to periods of success stemming from a culture shift often taking place under a change in leadership. 

It’s these long-standing values and beliefs each program has in place that will make navigating the COVID-19 pandemic a little less stressful for programs with a long-standing history of success. Other schools that may be in the midst of a culture change in the programs will likely struggle a little during this time, but what about new schools who are still working to build their program from the ground up?

That’s the case for a handful of new high schools in Arizona right now, who not only are stuck navigating the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, but also a slew of other factors that come about when starting something from scratch.

As the population of Arizona continues to grow, so does the number of new schools being built. In August 2018, Canyon View High School officially opened in Waddell, and less than a year later, both Eastmark High School in the Mesa/Queen Creek area and West Point High School in Avondale opened as an effort to better serve the increasingly populated communities. 

One thing each of these programs have in common, though, is that they’re working to establish a culture and continue to grow overall participation virtually. It’s something no other high school in the state has had to do when preparing for their first varsity season. 

Both Andrew “Scooter” Molander at Eastmark and Mickey Van Kirk at Canyon View currently share a number of similar struggles when it comes to getting the kids physically and mentally prepared for the football season this fall, assuming there is one.**

Molander says not being able to work with his players this past spring, and even going into the summer, has been the biggest struggle he’s had to deal with. Not only does he have to trust the athletes did the workouts they were supposed to during the quarantine, he also will have to work around social distancing measures when the students are allowed back on campus. 

Van Kirk shares a similar struggle, saying that nearly 75% of all students who come out for football at Canyon View have never participated in the sport before. It makes preparation that much more crucial, but Canyon View has dealt with adversity before when it comes to being able to train during the summer. 

When Canyon View first opened, it was a unique situation. Because construction was behind schedule, the school wasn’t issued occupancy certificates for the buildings until the first day of school. Without the occupancy certificates, the program had nowhere to practice over summer and nowhere to store their equipment. 

“We had nothing. So we played our first game with like, five practices with about 75-percent of the kids never having played football. So year one was really tough.”

Van Kirk said that year two went a little more smoothly, and that he feels that extra year of playing with only a freshman and jv team allowed them to prepare more for the transition to a full varsity schedule. He believes this will ultimately work out to their advantage in the long run. 

Canyon View High School’s Jaguar Stadium. Photo by: Brittany Bowyer
Canyon View High School. Photo by: Brittany Bowyer

Since schools across the nation shuttered their doors in March, Molander and Van Kirk have also had to figure out how to recruit students to come out for the team, since none of them are on campus. It’s been tougher for players to recruit some of their classmates or friends since there’s far less socialization during the pandemic. 

It doesn’t help that the future of the season is still currently up in the air. Although schools have slowly been releasing their tentative schedules, there’s still the possibility that the season will not even take place. While Arizona Governor Doug Ducey already declared that schools will open their doors to students as planned for the 2020-2021 school year, things could still change should another outbreak take the nation by storm. 

“We were really excited for this year, and then everything has happened now, so it’s kind of reminiscent of year one for us in year three,” Van Kirk said. “I told them some time ago this might last a couple weeks, this might last a couple months, but it’s going to end and you need to decide today you’re going to come out of this better than you went into this.”

Although it seems more likely now that there will be a season than it did a few weeks ago, at what capacity will it take place? Will fans be allowed to attend the first-ever varsity football games for their programs, or will they limit the stands to only family members? Countless questions surround the upcoming season and there’s no timeline as to when there may be answers.  It’s forced coaches to take a “prepare for the best, expect the worst” type of scenario. 

“You have to be honest with them, and I have been, with them and the parents,” Van Kirk said. “I just tell them we are going to do everything we can to be ready the moment they say we can go, but you have to be realistic with what’s going on. You have to really brace yourself and your mind that this may not happen.”

Canyon View coaches are relying heavily on virtual communication to stay in contact with their athletes. Van Kirk said his staff, which consists of former Agua Fria freshman football defensive coordinator Aaron Upsher as the Defensive Coordinator and Tirrell Turner as the Offensive Coordinator, are sending kids tailored workout programs via Google classroom. 

“He’s designed all at-home workouts so that if you don’t have anything, you can still workout and get stronger,” Van Kirk said. 

Molander’s staff, which includes former Tempe High School coach Mark Rhiner as the Defensive Coordinator, former Perry High School passing games coordinator Adam Schiermyer as the Offensive Coordinator and ASU defensive lineman and former NFL player Will Sutton as the D-line coach, has also used technology like Zoom to communicate virtually with the players. 

Molander recognized that Eastmark is lucky, in a way, since it’s considered a one-to-one school. That means each student is given a laptop for their schoolwork, and because of that, has allowed them to stay connected for football. This is something that Molander recognizes not every school is as lucky to have at a time when everything is so heavily reliant on virtual communication. 

One thing both coaches are looking forward to is taking the field with their team on Friday nights during each school’s inaugural varsity season. 

“They’ve worked really, really hard in the offseason so far and we were really making great strides,” Molander said. “This year, we’re playing varsity football with freshmen, sophomores and a smattering of juniors, so it’s going to be a challenging year, but we intend to compete and win every ballgame.”

It’s a sentiment that was echoed by Van Kirk, who said his team will be faced with a different kind of adversity when they take the field for games this upcoming season. 

“Now you’ve got established programs with big seniors on the team. A big line that’s gonna come after you. I really want to see how they’ve adapted from year one to year three, and I really expect a huge jump,” Van Kirk said. 

**Note: West Point head coaching position is currently vacant, and the athletic director could not be reached for comment

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