Mountain Ridge’s 2020 squad is led by a group of seniors that helped revive the moribund program last year and a new wave of sophomores that won big on the middle school and freshman levels.
After the loss of spring football, 7-on-7, and big man competitions and months of sporadic workouts, Mountain Lions coach Doug Madoski worried that this group would not have time to come together.
But the leader of the offensive line spent the summer building a bridge.
“I thought it would be a detriment, that these kids wouldn’t have the chance to get to know each other,” Madoski said. “Sean Sisco, I can’t say enough about that kid and the work he’s done this offseason. As a senior, that kid went out to those sophomores and started working out with them and getting them involved. You would think that senior group would kind of stay with themselves. He actually went the complete other way to help us be as successful as we can. Then you saw the younger guys start coming together with the older kids.”
Sisco has been joined by other seniors who saw the class of 2023 burst onto the scene with an 8-1 freshman team and formed the heart of the local Ridge Army youth team win multiple NYS championships.
Senior tight end/slot Tyler Strow caught 26 passes for 237 yards last year and is the team’s second leading receiver behind fellow senior Cole Mitchell (32 catches for 379 yards).
They got a first-hand look at the young talent in the form of sophomore Deric English — the third leading receiver with 18 catches for 193 yards in only three varsity games.
“It’s a lot bigger challenge (on varsity) and the seniors answer my questions. They’re leading me to the right way,” English said.
Madoski and multiple players mentioned sophomore receiver Sam Thielen’s ability as a route runner who attacks the ball. Strow said he’s also impressed with junior receiver Aiden Donovan.
“We have a bunch of young guys in our receiving corps and they’re very good kids,” Strow said. “Anything we can help them build on will further their game. They’re already at a very high level, so the more we help them with our knowledge ... they already have the skills.”
Mountain Ridge freshman Deric English leans forward after gaining yards on a run against Gilbert Perry in the first round of the 6A football playoffs on Nov. 8. [Courtesy Mountain Ridge Football Facebook]
The fleet of pass catchers is so deep that another sophomore with breakout potential, Terrance Hall, made the transition from slot receiver to tailback. No returning player ran for more than three yards last year so Hall and fellow sophomore Dylan Hernandez should have plenty of opportunities.
Brendan Anderson has potential to be another breakout sophomore. The 6-1 quarterback is already gaining some national recruiting attention and will battle Mitchell for the starting job.
Madoski said Mitchell is a competitive but unselfish kid who still wants to play quarterback but is willing to do whatever the team needs. However, the coach was quick to say that every starting job is up for grabs and close competitions probably will be tougher for veterans to win.
“To me if all things are equal, the young guy needs to play. That kid has got a chance to grow,” Madoski said. “To me it’s simple, the older you get, the more you better work to make sure you hold onto it. There’s not a job that’s safe.”
The coach said the first week of practice, which started on Labor Day, would tell the tale for position battles.
While sophomores who are ready will get the opportunity, others that may not have a starting job will not be bumped up to varsity too soon.
“We’re not going to pull a kid up just to pull him up. If they’re truly ready to play, they’ll come up and stay. If they’re better served by being a big piece of the junior varsity program rather than being a backup for us, we’ll probably keep them down on JV,” Madoski said.
Now if that sophomore is pushing 6-5 and 290 pounds and plays left tackle, like Alex Doost, many factors are in their favor of starting on the varsity from day one.
Sisco will lead the line from his guard spot for the third straight year. Junior Jeffrey Toloa Jr. also started at guard last year.
Toloa also could rotate into the picture at defensive tackle. Madoski said senior defensive tackle Derek Torres worked hard on the field and in the classroom to take a leading role with this group.
“It’s a brand new culture and something we appreciate after all we’ve been through,” senior cornerback Albin Arulanandu said. “Having played with all these seniors since eighth grade on our feeder team, its a great feeling. I’m really happy and thankful for the coaching staff.”
Senior Hunter Ramage also started on the defensive line last year.
The entire defense projects to be more senior oriented. Senior linebacker Deryk Leverage leads the way after having a hand in 83 tackles last year.
Fellow senior Dylan Johns could shuttle between outside linebacker and strong safety. The secondary figures to be a strong suit with Arulanandu and safety Tanor Loosle returning after starting in 2019.
Arulanandu has seven offseason offers from small college football programs and Leverage, Loosle and Torres also received offers.
As Strow was quick to point out, some fellow seniors are not going to keep playing football in college. And there was always a sense of suspense as to whether that senior season would happen.
“We definitely saw who wants to play football. Showing up for workouts was a choice you had to make. Some kids didn’t come but others stayed and put in the work. They’re going to be rewarded for it,” Strow said.
Mountain Ridge junior kicker Blake Comstock (88) and junior holder Dylan Johns (15) react as they watch the flight of a 36-yard game winning field goal with no time on the clock against Corona del Sol during the second half of their 6A football game on Aug. 30, 2019. [Ralph Freso for West Valley Preps]
When the coaches had a chance to lead workouts with the players, they focused on the weight room and shuttling small groups in and out of it.
The Mountain Lions lucked out, having a new, larger weight room and four Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists on staff, including defensive coordinator Ben Kullos and strength coach Kevin Schmidt
“I’m not overly worried about it. One thing that was frustrating is we would start to get this swell of enthusiasm, to grow and do things and it would get shut down,” Madoski said. “We focused more on trying to build our kids in the weight room. Coach Kullos and Coach Schmidt did a phenomenal job all summer long finding ways to get them ready to play from a strength standpoint. We got lucky. We have four coaches that are all CSCS certified and most programs are happy to have one.”
Madoski also took advantage of his connections from Scottsdale Community College days to bolster the Mountain Lions’ staff. Tommy Ziegler, his offensive coordinator from the SCC days, moved into the same role at the north Glendale school.
Participation numbers are up, as Mountain Ridge now has a separate JV program — not the case last year. Madoski said some 2019 varsity football players did not come back.
Scottsdale and the current Maricopa Mustangs junior college team provides a template for Madoski as far as prepping teams quickly for week one. He said he is used to not having players until three weeks before the first game.
That week one has changed in almost every form. The game is six weeks later, the opponent is different and the season is two games shorter.
All five original non-region opponents are off the slate, replaced by Mesa Skyline, Mesa Desert Ridge and Tolleson. Most notably the Mountain Lions lost former opening opponent Liberty and week three foe Centennial.
Madoski made no bones about it. He scheduled those two games in particular as major building blocks in the program’s Twitter goal to eventually #WinTheWest — a chance for Mountain Ridge to measure itself against the West Valley’s two best programs.
“We liked the schedule we had, to build start to us up. Before we look beyond the West Valley, we have to be successful in the West Valley,” Madoski said. “But as long as I’m football coach here, it doesn’t matter. As long as it’s 120 yards long and 53 1/3 yards wide, I’ll play in a parking lot. If it’s eight games, then we’ll try to make the playoffs and add to the late.”
But the Mountain Lions play six other West Valley foes, including new region opponents Avondale La Joya, Shadow Ridge and Valley Vista. All of them figure to provide suitable tests.
Before Mountain Ridge can win the West Valley, it needs to win Deer Valley. Madoski’s first season saw the 0-10 team from 2018 burst out to a 5-2 start in 2019, capped by an overtime upset of future 6A champ Liberty.
Fellow DVUSD schools Boulder Creek and O’Connor brought the Mountain Lions back to Earth by beating them 37-20 and 34-27, respectively.
“We have a good region but we’re looking forward to our district games, Boulder Creek and O’Connor,” Arulanandu said. “Especially after what happened last year, we’re ready to play them again.”