On the final day of Saguaro’s spring football practice last Thursday, Devin Brunetti toed the line of scrimmage as 90 of his closest friends looked on.
The mission was simple: If the senior offensive lineman hauled in a pass from new football coach Jason Mohns, the Sabercats would get a water break and his position group would avoid sprints.
Brunetti sprinted downfield and turned his head up and to the left.
After a slight bobble, he tucked the football into his chest and secured it with both arms.
With the completion official, Brunetti broke into a celebration dance that would have made the Jabbawockeez proud, while his teammates hollered in celebration.
Four months ago, devastation, bewilderment and fury were the emotions on display at Saguaro.
Now the Sabercats are having fun again.
• • •
Shock could have turned into mutiny very easily when John Sanders was fired.
The Sabercats were fresh off a fifth state championship in six years, but that still wasn’t enough to save his job.
Saguaro’s coach had always been brutally honest and oftentimes controversial, but the winning trumped it all.
However, the decision to sit his starters against Chaparral and an accumulation of other off-field issues led to the dismissal on Jan. 5.
As polarizing as Sanders is around the state, he developed a tight-knit bond within his program.
Not surprisingly, players and parents were furious.
After the hysteria died down, the Saguaro administration had a decision to make: Clean house completely, or keep the infrastructure in place.
Principal Brian Corte chose the latter, tabbing Mohns to be the new coach, and it may have saved the program.
Saguaro’s enrollment is fewer than 1,400 students, but don’t let the numbers fool you. The area’s top players open enroll or transfer in because the program is elite and continues to win.
If a different staff was brought in, that could have been threatened and current players may have left.
“I don’t know if many of our players would have been comfortable with a new person coming in,” Saguaro freshman wide receiver Christian Kirk said. “It would have been hard to warm up to somebody (from the outside). With Jason, we’re comfortable. It’s like there was no dropoff.”
Mohns worked his way up in the program, coaching the freshman team, then becoming a varsity position coach before taking over as offensive coordinator last season when Matt Lewis left for the head coaching job at McClintock.
The apprenticeship was supposed to last longer, with the possibility of Mohns succeeding Sanders down the road.
But now he’s front and center. At the age of 30, Mohns has been given the keys to one of the top programs in the state.
So far, he says, so good.
“I haven’t had to fight one thing,” he said. “I haven’t had one kid say, ‘Well, coach Sanders used to do it this way.’ We’re running the same show. This is the blueprint that has been in place, and we’re just continuing with it. It’s been a very seamless transition.”
There have been some changes.
Offensive line coach Chris Chick is now at Chandler after he said Mohns was told not to bring him back. The offseason weightlifting regimen has been altered.
Mohns has embraced a multi-sport philosophy among athletes, something Sanders frowned upon, and that’s the impetus behind a nearly 50 percent participation increase in spring football.
When Sanders was at the helm, he was notorious for making things his way or the highway.
Mohns, at an earlier stage in his career, is more nuanced.
“I haven’t earned the right to just do things my way and however I feel like it,” he said.
These differences may become background noise.
The fact is, Sanders won. A lot.
Sixty-two of 69 games and four state championships in his five years.
Saguaro graduates Tribune Player of the Year D.J. Foster, but returns quarterback Luke Rubenzer and wide receiver Christian Kirk, two players that should keep the Sabercats in the state title discussion for the foreseeable future.
Mohns smiled when asked about expectations at the school, a bar set very high and one he has no plans on lowering.
“The only year we didn’t win a state championship since I’ve been here was 2009, when we made the semifinals,” Mohns said. “And that felt like a lost year. Most schools would be thrilled to be in the semifinals, and we had a sick feeling in our stomach until we won it the next year. That’s the expectation I have and those are the expectations (the players) have, and that’s what I want it to be.”