As the saying goes, Jimmies and Joes trump X’s and O’s.
Still, it never hurts to have a top-tier football coach leading the way. From offseason dedication, to starting lineup decisions, to in-game adjustments, to player psychology, to piles of paperwork, to helping kids reach the next level, to discipline, to booster clubs, the head honcho’s job is never done.
Each has his own unique way of dealing with more issues and challenges than most people could possibly dream up, and those decisions can have a direct correlation to both the scoreboard and the kids they teach, football, life, and everything in between.
Five East Valley coaches stood out for the job(s) they did in 2013. The winner will be announced later in December, but here is a sneak peek (in alphabetical order) at the finalists for this year’s Tribune Football Coach of the Year:
Steve Belles: Hamilton
This one should always be qualified, right? I mean, it’s Hamilton. Then again, if you watched this team through most of the regular season, it was a struggle — not exactly the juggernaut displays this program has been since its inception. Yet the Huskies found their way back to the title game with a limited offense, lots of special teams struggle during the season and a defense that was stout, but, at times, wobbled. Savaged by injuries from Week 2 through Week 9 — yes, injuries matter a lot, even with a roster as big as Hamilton’s — the Huskies won five games by less than a touchdown, steamrolled Pinnacle after barely squeaking out a win against the Pioneers in the regular season, then stymied Chandler’s explosive offense in the semifinals. The Huskies were beaten up by Mountain Pointe for a second time this season in the state championship game, but not many who saw the Huskies throughout most of the season pegged them as being a championship-game caliber team.
Jeremy Hathcock: Desert Ridge
At this point, it’s becoming an annual ritual, which is probably the biggest testament to the Jaguars’ program and competitiveness. Desert Ridge came in with solid talent this summer, but had many questions along the offensive line, defense and skill positions. Quarterback Tarek Morrison was coming back from a serious knee injury, was never able to generate much of a passing game, and, unfortunately for him, suffered another serious injury late in the regular season. The Jaguars also lost their best receiver, E.J. McClanahan for the year early in the regular season. Yes, the Jaguars had Taren Morrison, but it’s quite rare a one-dimensional attack works with such proficiency against Div. I defenses. Eventually, Justin Irby and Alec Hathcock were added into the mix, but the Jaguars threw 70 passes in 13 games. When opposing teams knew Desert Ridge wouldn’t throw more than five times per game, and the Jaguars still averaged eight yards per carry as a team behind an undersized offensive line, it’s an elite level of scheme and discipline being displayed. Mountain Pointe finally stuffed the Jaguars in the semifinals, but a team with a bunch of relatively unknown kids on defense and in the trenches that wins 11 games, takes after its coach.
Angelo Paffumi: Skyline
The coach himself probably doesn’t want to see his name here. To Paffumi, his second season was a good step in the right direction, but far from closing in on some kind of destination. He’s fiery, passionate and blunt — the product of a decade under Jesse Parker and a few more years under Hathcock — but the results are becoming more tangible with each passing week. The Coyotes were also beaten up with injuries, at one point dressing fewer than 30 kids on varsity a couple times. But the school’s first winning season since 2008 (the Coyotes argue they should have won seven games and beaten Desert Mountain instead of surrendering a touchdown and two-point conversion on the final play of the game in a loss) and a playoff berth was cause for excitement in East Mesa, even if it was going to be a long night against high-powered Chandler in the first round (a 55-16 loss). The climb continues, namely in the quest to get kids into the program and keep them at Skyline. The Coyotes was 6-26 from 2009-2011. With Paffumi, it's an 11-10 record the past two years.
Jim Jones: Mesquite
Again, it’s easy to qualify this: Mesquite moved down from Div. I to Div. II based on its declining enrollment numbers for this new, two-year scheduling block beginning this season. Despite the scoreboard struggles the past two years, former coach Matt Gracey was heaping praise on this senior class before he was let go (plus Jordan Robinson transferred back to his home school from Brophy). Thanks to the division change, the schedule went from Highland, Red Mountain, Chandler, Chaparral and Hamilton, to Williams Field, Corona del Sol, Glendale Cactus, Poston Butte, Marcos de Niza and Campo Verde. Yes, Jones was hired at the right time and had the right group of upperclassmen chomping at the bit to win, but his tough, disciplined, demanding style among him and his assistants worked wonders, and, at some point, the “qualifying” rebuttals wear off. That should have happened when the Wildcats’ 10 wins were the most in school history, or their first state semifinals appearance. This year, the Wildcats held up with Chaparral most of the way before eventually falling short in the semifinal, but Jones and co. had long established that 30-plus years of coaching and a guy who’d been around the block and back more than a few times at age 63 could reach previously-downtrodden teenagers.
Norris Vaughan: Mountain Pointe
Is it more difficult to take a team from the bottom and guide it upward, or take a really good team and make it elite? Who knows, but the Pride did the latter under Vaughan this year after knocking on the door in 2012. There was lots of top talent returning from last year’s runner-up finish, starting with Jalen Brown, Natrell Curtis, Antonio Hinojosa, Paul Lucas and Wesley Payne. It began with a resounding performance against Las Vegas Bishop Gorman in the Barry Sollenberger Classic, and ended with a second resounding performance of the season against Hamilton. There were no missteps, and barely any close calls on the schedule as the Pride stomped their way through Arizona’s big schools. Its relentlessmess, unwavering and united attitudes toward turning the table on last year’s championship defeat trumped all the individual talent, a message delivered loud and clear by Vaughan and his staff. This season was something of a culmination of Vaughan’s tenure, in which the Pride went from doormat to 54-11 and a top-tier national ranking in his five years at the school. If you think it’s easy or “a given” that a team loaded with talent will run the table and win a championship on its own the way Mountain Pointe did, try coaching 60 teenagers.
Honorable Mention: Shaun Aguano (Chandler), Tommy Brittain (Tempe Prep), Steve Campbell (Williams Field), Kris Heavner (Horizon), Dave Huffine (Chaparral), Tim Kelly (interim Corona del Sol), Jason Mohns (Saguaro), Max Ragsdale (Campo Verde), Travis Schureman (interim Queen Creek), Dana Zupke (Pinnacle)
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.