What does it take to keep teenage football players motivated after winning four consecutive state championships?
Hunger, says their coach. That’s a big motivation for this year’s Saguaro High School team that is preparing to make a run at a fifth straight state title, becoming the first football program in the state to accomplish the feat.
“Our kids are hungrier than ever,” said Saguaro head coach Jason Mohns in an interview earlier this summer. “I think that’s the biggest challenge when you come off winning four in a row… Are you still hungry? Are you still motivated?”
This year’s motivational theme is “Drive for Five.”
The Scottsdale program graduated 30 seniors from last year’s squad and will be using a lot of young players this season to fill the voids. But Mohns says losing all of those players makes the young ones coming up even hungrier because they want to show they’re up to the task and are aware of the expectations being placed on them.
That youth will be most noticable on the offensive line. Saguaro lost three from an O line that could be considered the best in the state. That trio of Corey Stephens, Jax Wacaser, and Sean Seawards will be playing in the Pac-12 this season – as will tight end Jared Poplawski.
Also lost to graduation was one of the best running backs in the state. Stone Matthews graduated in the spring after contributing back-to-back seasons of 2,000 or more yards. Josiah Bradley, a rugged 195-pound senior, will likely step into that role after playing in 13 games last season and averaging 12.8 yards a carry.
Perhaps the biggest challenge will be on defense, where the Sabercats lost eight of their 11 starters.
On the bright side, Saguaro will have senior quarterback Max Massingale returning, along with a deep corps of receivers. Last season, Saguaro had seven players on the roster who each contributed 100 or more receiving yards. Three of those – Zack Wilson, Logan Pettijohn, and Giovanni Miranda – are back. The trio combined for 59 receptions and 975 yards, with Wilson leading the way with 24 catches and 401 yards.
Massingale is coming off a huge season in which he threw for 2,291 yards and rushed for another 1,012. He piled up 30 touchdowns passing and 12 more on the ground.
Mohns has used the off-season to re-focus the upperclassmen and work on breaking in his new herd of young colts. This year’s squad has participated in the usual 7-on-7 passing leagues and tournaments – they won the big one at ASU – and set up spring camp in Thousand Oak, Calif., where they spent four days in July training at California Lutheran University. And, of course, there’s the grueling conditioning and weight-lifting sessions that are the hallmark of a Mohns team.
The other standard for Mohns’ programs is scheduling top out-of-state teams that will prepare Saguaro for the regular schedule. This year that means an Aug. 26 road game against Liberty High School, Nevada’s state runner-up, and a Sept. 1 home contest against East High School, the Utah state champion and No. 13-ranked team on USA Today’s preseason poll.
Before those games, however, the Sabercats will open their 4A schedule against Tucson’s Catalina Foothills High School, which will be a re-run of last year’s state championship game. Saguaro won that one going away, 42-14.
Saguaro has been dominating in winning its four straight titles, posting a combined score of 183-30 against playoff opponents during that span. Last year’s team went undefeated through 14 games and averaged a total of 456 yards a game on offense.
Despite losing a ton of talent, Mohns is encouraged by what he has seen over the summer. “We’re replacing really good players, but we’re replacing them with really good players. They just don’t have the experience yet.”
That’s going to change by the time Saguaro gets to its first Skyline Region game on Sept. 15. They will most assuredly be ready for St. Mary’s High School (Phoenix) by that time.
Something the Knights know all too well, as memories of last year’s 34-6 home loss still linger.
This year the game will be at Saguaro. And that really cuts down the odds of an upset. The last time the Sabercats lost a game on its own field was Sept. 4 of 2015, when they scored just 12 points in a loss to Pinnacle High School. That loss apparently was a motivator; they won the next 25 games straight over two seasons.
A team that went 4-7 last season, the Knights aren’t likely to be the team to derail the Saguaro juggernaut. But St. Mary’s is in good company – there may not be an in-state team out there capable of keeping the Scottsdale power from collecting another gold globe.
And that’s got to be Saguaro’s biggest motivation. The focus is always on championships, not just winning seasons.
But it still helps to be hungry.