A year ago, the Mesa High School football program was in disarray.
Scott Hare resigned in March of 2016. The interview process didn’t go smoothly after a candidate was selected, who never officially became the coach.
It meant a second coaching search had to begin and commence. It wasn’t in time for spring ball so the team, at least the ones who decided to show up, did little more than conditioning.
“It wasn’t good,” senior-to-be lineman Nate Montague said. “We didn’t know who our coach was or what we were supposed to be doing really. We tried to do everything we could at the time.”
The time came and went with no coach in place until the administration went to the way back machine and brought in one of their own in Kapi Sikahema.
He was brought in on May 24, tried to hit the ground, the one where he and his brother, Vai, played on the 1980s, running but was surprised just how far the program fell.
“I am not going to sugar coat it,” Sikahema said. “It’s going to take a few years to battle for the ring. We have some fighters and that’s where we have our advantage.
“A lot of this community is poverty stricken so they have nothing. This is where I grew up. This is where (assistant coach and former Cardinal) Deuce (Luiti) grew up. It’s a battle. We know about the fight and for us it is a normal day. That’s what I want these kids to learn. Don’t make no excuses. Go out and fight and work hard. God will direct you to the right places.”
For Sikahema and his coaching staff, which includes eight Mesa grads, that place seems to be at the football stadium on Southern Avenue.
The first season saw the Jackrabbits go 4-7 and a respectable 2-3 in the 6A Conference East Valley Region.
Considering the late start on building a relationship between the players and coaching staff, a team trip up north before the start of the season helped as did a winning a road trip to Nevada in Week 2, it was a successful season while laying a foundation for the future.
This year’s team will have the benefit of spring ball, the offseason workouts and coaches in place from the start rather than getting to know the players in rapid fashion.
And don’t discount the power of the players believing that the program is on the rise.
“They came in and everything is different,” senior-to-be Kris Jackson. “The tradition they brought in suits our school better. They are from here and they know what it’s like to go to Mesa.
“When practice really started kicking off I had a feeling things were going to go really good. It might not be right away, but this school is going to see a change.”
The number of players out for spring camp, which gets underway this week, is expected be around 70 players and Sikahema believes more will come as word gets out about the program and it continues to progress.
“We are changing the culture,” he said. “We really are. We got a few new kids come in from other schools like Chandler and Hamilton. When was the last time someone came from a Chandler school to Mesa High? That’s unheard of. Kids were leaving our program for other schools and now kids from big schools are coming here.”
Most of the skill players are gone from last year but plenty of experienced lettermen like Jackson (1,750 career rushing yards, 6 touchdowns in two years), two-way lineman Montague and wide receiver Ed McClendon (24 catches, 4 touchdowns) will be back this fall.
“Some of these kids they really turned it around,” Sikahema said. “They didn’t like football no more, and weren’t going to play. Now they are starters and can be leaders. They are out here and working hard.
“It’s about the mentality. All the kids are wearing the same uniforms (for spring ball). We look like a team again. I try to force upon our kids the importance of team and what they can do together.”
The idea is to be competitive, win games and give the players structure and eventually elevate the program to state contender status again, but Sikahema has other motives as well.
“I hope these kids learn the coaching staff loves them,” Sikahema said. “Yes, we are going to be chewing them up and run them to death, but at the end we will have a cheeseburger with them and let them know we are here for them.
“I don’t want this fake loyalty thing. We are here for them. We want to give them an experience they will never forget. So, when they go on to the workforce, college or the Army they will remember all the lessons they learned here at Mesa High during the highs of wins and struggles of losses. We just want to make them better people and that’s what we are really striving for.”
– Jason P. Skoda is a freelance reporter for MyNewsMesa.com.