The Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference is looking to beef up competition around the state by hiring two of the best JUCO assistants from within the conference to run a team together. On Friday, the HJCAC officially named Vaughn Van Dame the Head Coach and Alec Horne the Associate Head Coach and Director of Recruiting of the Salt River Scorpions, one of five teams in the league.
“They brought us into the room together and said, ‘You can do things he can’t do, and he can do things you can’t do,’ and they felt like the two of us together, it would be a good fit and a good opportunity to give people a chance who have been behind the league from the beginning,” Horne said.
Both Van Dame and Horne join the Scorpions after spending the last two years with the Gila River Hawks under Coach Ryan Felker. In the two seasons since the league’s conception, the Hawks have taken the state by storm, winning back-to-back HJCAC conference championships. Together, the pair looks to combine their strengths to make the Scorpions a successful and competitive team in the league.
“It’s gonna be a tag team from us both. We learned it from Coach Felker, I think we both understand how this thing works and I think we can be competitive in the first year, especially with the knowledge we’ve got and everything we’ve learned already so far,” Van Dame said.
Salt River’s 2020 season fell apart before it even got started, just as many did others in the pandemic. It all started when former Head Coach Christopher Hargrove had to step down from his position immediately back in August for health-related issues.
“There is never a great time to lose such a great mentor and leader of people, but doing so weeks before the initial start of fall camp is a challenge to navigate,” The HJCAC said in a press release back in August.
As the pandemic continued to tighten its grip on the community, metrics in the South Phoenix area that the team serves continued to trend in the wrong direction. The home fields where the Scorpions would practice within the Phoenix Union High School District had been shuttered and with opening dates uncertain.
The HJCAC ultimately felt it was in the best interest of all student athletes in the league to cancel the Scorpions’ fall slate and allow those players to join one of the other existing rosters in the state.
Both Van Dame and Horne are thrilled to be able to continue giving more student athletes a chance, something they both feel like the league took them.
“I’m really excited to recruit Phoenix Union, obviously because these kids kinda got hurt in a lot of ways by not being able to play like they were supposed to be, so being able to give a lot of those kids opportunities who probably wouldn’t have opportunities is probably going to be the biggest thing for me,” Van Dame said.
Van Dame talked about how the JUCO route set him up for success later in life. With only one scholarship offer in high school, Van Dame said he wasn’t able to accept it because of grades. He decided to go to a community college, where he was able to improve his grades and earn a scholarship to a four year school. From there, Van Dame went on to play some arena football and began coaching. Because of the doors opened for him, he hopes to be able to do the same for others.
Van Dame, at 26, is the youngest coach in the HJCAC. Horne isn’t much older, at 30. It’s something they know people will likely view as a weakness, but something they view as a strength.
“It’s an accomplishment, but at the same time in my head I’m like, ‘It’s cool, once they announce it it’ll be cool and it’ll kinda die out and then everyone is going to doubt.’ Just because I’m such a young guy, there’s probably going to be a lot of things to say, but it’s really ultimately just motivating to have the opportunity to lead a group of young men and coach football,” Van Dame said.
“I didn’t necessarily think it was going to happen for me,” Horne said. “Never playing college football myself, and just staring where I started, I never thought my first opportunity as a head coach would be at the college level.”
The duo has already hit the ground running and is working to get things in place for this upcoming season in search of putting the best team on the field possible. One of the things they’re most excited for is when their team will have a chance to play against Coach Felker and the Hawks.
“It’s gonna be fun, you know, especially because he taught me how to call plays, he taught me how to run an offense and he taught me his offense, so that will be interesting. I’m going to have to change some things up to go against him, but all in all, we’re really close and it’s gonna be a good time to go against our old mentor,” Van Dame said.