As Gila River Hawks Head Coach Ryan Felker gathered his players and coaches on the field after practice ended Monday, he emphasized the importance of this week. Game week was officially here, and in the midst of a pandemic, the young Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference was miraculously going to be able to move on with their second season.
It’s a relieving shock to both the coaches and the players associated with the Conference. Alec Horne, the running backs coach and recruiting coordinator said, “In March, I was like, there’s no way in Hell. When we had to decide to postpone spring and then eventually cancel it, I said ‘there’s no way, there’s too many variables,’ but at the end of the day, the league came together and did what was best for the kids.”
During the quarantine, the young men were forced to find parks and other places to continue training, and they’re hungry to not only get back to work, but to show everyone how strong they really are.
In the program’s first year, the Hawks had a record of 8-1, earning Coach Felker the title of Conference Coach of the Year. The Hawks also helped former Mesa Community College linebacker Jeremy Mercier sign with Utah, among a number of other players who were able to go on to play at FBS schools.
Now, going into year number two, the team has an opportunity to continue building on the success of last season. The opportunities to do so present themselves in a number of ways. Not only has the HJCAC and programs like the Gila River Hawks begun to draw dozens of talented players towards the program, they’re also working with an entirely new defensive staff.
Additionally, these players have the opportunity to be a part of the JUCO community in Arizona, an opportunity that many thought they’d never have again. While it’s a little different from the traditional community college route, HJCAC was created to keep providing opportunities, and these players have the chance to establish the program early on as one of the top JUCO programs in Arizona.
It’s already attracted a number of former local high school players like Rhett Ricedorff of Show Low High School (2017), Randy Robinson of Chandler High School (2018), Mata’ava Ta’ase of Mesa Mountain View (2016) and Zach Kriens of Higley High School (2020). The thought is that in the years to come, the HJCAC and the Gila River Hawks will continue to become a program players gravitate towards to further their careers.
This is the case for players like Ricedorff and Ta’ase. Both are returning to the field after taking a hiatus to serve Missions for their church.
“This being JUCO ball, for a lot of us, this is our last chance. So we’re all just excited, especially with this crazy year, it’s a blessing to just be able to get on the field and play,” Ta’ase said.
Ta’ase has a younger brother, Malaki, who is a junior defensive end at Mountain View. The two of them have discussed the possibility of playing together and it’s something that they are strongly leaning towards doing if the opportunity presents itself. Mata’ava and Malaki have already received a couple of scholarship offers, and more are expected to come as this year progresses.
Ricedorff also comes from a family with strong football blood. Rhett’s brother, Rathen Ricedorff, was coached by Felker at Mesa Community College, where he was named the 2016 Spalding NJCAA Football Offensive Player of the Year. Rathen then went on to sign with Boise State, eventually transferring to Weber State to finish his career.
“I feel like Coach Felker and the coaching staff does all they can to help us in being successful,” Ricedorff said. “I’m just grateful for that opportunity that they’ve given me to come out and play again. You know, it’s been four years since I’ve been able to go out on a football field so it’s been a while.”
“He’s (Rhett) got some pretty big shoes to fill,” Coach Felker Said
Robinson played for Glendale Community College his first year out of high school, however, when the program shut down following the culmination of the 2018 season, he was left searching for a new home. And for Kreins, who had a few FCS offers, it’s an opportunity to earn a scholarship to an FBS school.
“I feel pretty excited. For me personally, it’s been a while since I’ve played a JUCO game, so coming in this week I feel pretty pumped up,” Robinson said.
Robinson was on the Hawks roster last year, showing up every single day to practice to help his team and himself grow in any way he could, despite knowing that he wouldn’t see the field at all during the season. This year, he’s seeing his hard work pay off, taking the field as one of the team’s top defensive players.
“He’s a pretty high character kid, definitely one of our best leaders,” Coach Felker said.
Meanwhile for Kriens, he had a couple of FCS scholarship offers out of high school, but opted to join the Gila River Hawks first where he hopes to pick up more scholarship offers to expand his options. From last year to this year, his size and physique have shown the results of his hard work in the off-season, and he expressed how anxious he is to get back out on the field.
“We’ve been going against each other for a month now, so it’s like we’re all ready to get after someone else. We’re tired of going after each other, but we’ve got to keep that energy up,” Kriens said.
Coach Felker expects Robinson, along with Kriens to gain a slew of offers to FBS schools this season.
This year, the Hawks have a seven game slate, one less than when the HJCAC announced plans for a postponed season to still take place, earlier in the year. Because of the pandemic, the league has decided against playing teams from out of state, creating a lot of interleague competition.
Even despite a successful first year overall for the HJCAC, there are still people who don’t seem to appreciate what the league’s fully been able to accomplish. There have been a slew of negative comments on social media about a range of things, but both the players and the coaches agree, anyone who is unsure about the program needs to come out and see for themselves.
“Just come out and see us and that will wake you right up,” Robinson said.
Ta’ase followed up, “Seeing is believing, so come out and see what we have to offer.”
“This is really a league to get all JUCO players who might not have had a chance out of high school go to college. This gives them a second chance to get on that right path they want to be on in life,” Ta’ase said.
“I get why people are talking. It’s because they don’t understand what we’re doing, and they also don’t understand that all these kids are on an academic college path,” Coach Horne said. “It’s not semi-pro. People think it’s semi-pro, and there’s just random old people out there, but no, your eligibility clock has to be a legitimate clock in the NCAA or the NAIA or else you can’t play in the league. Everything is checked.”
The Hawks open up the season at home against the Arizona Christian University Firestorm this Saturday, October 24th, at home (to be played at Campo Verde) before hitting the road the following week to take on the Sonoran Sidewinders. They then return home on November 7th for their most anticipated game on the schedule against the Papago Pumas.
“I think anytime two east Valley teams play there are a lot of kids that grew up together, that and their location make for a pretty intense game. I have seen the growth in Papago and us as well. I’m looking forward to that matchup,” Coach Felker said.
They have one more road game against the Maricopa Mustangs on the 14th before playing the remainder of the schedule at home. They’ll host the Papago Pumas once again on November 21st, have a bye week, host the Maricopa Mustangs on December 5th, followed by another bye week before the final game of the season on December 19th against the Sonoran Sidewinders. All games begin at 7:00 p.m.