Writer Tom Scanlon
Photographer Katy Ruben
[dropcap]I[/dropcap] wanted to win a championship with my brothers.” While brotherhood has been a solid-as-concrete theme, there’s only one word for Saguaro High School football in 2016: ridiculous. Starting the season with the school’s first out-of-state opponents, against powerhouse teams from California and Colorado? Ridiculous.
Expecting an unproven junior quarterback not to wilt under the spotlight of those first two games, one of which was televised on ESPN? Absurd.
Max Massingale’s performance under fire? Mega ridiculous.
The unheralded junior, following in the footsteps of five-star recruits who have gone on to college ball, led Saguaro to a 35-20 win in the opener against California’s Serra High School heavyweights. He then followed that dynamic debut with a near-perfect performance, completing 10 of 11 passes with two touchdowns in a 49-28 romp over Colorado’s Valor Christian High School.
The Sabercats dominated the regular season, ranked in the top 20 nationally by maxpreps.com, powering to a 10-0 record and outscoring opponents by an absurd 461-109 (average score: 46-11). Bring out the word “ridiculous” again for Massingale’s regular-season play, when he completed 70 percent of his passes, with 23 touchdowns and a mere four interceptions.
Though Massingale’s play throughout the season has been weirdly good, here’s the really ridiculous thing about this team: the scholarships.
Most high schools bust with pride when a football player or two is offered a college scholarship. Here at Saguaro, college rides are becoming commonplace. This year, 18 Saguaro seniors have received scholarship offers.
Five Saguaro stars have received more than a dozen scholarship offers. Just about every school in the country is after safety K.J. Jarrell, who has 22 offers. Linebacker Kyle Soelle has received 17 offers, just a few more than tight end Jared Poplawski and offensive linemen Jax Wacaser and Corey Stephens. While most are still deciding, Soelle, Poplawski and Stephens have all committed to Arizona State University.
Those five made the Arizona Republic’s top 100 seniors list, along with eight of their teammates: linebackers Brandt Casey and Kenny Oliver, wide receivers Donovan Dalton and Jacob Christofferson; running back Stone Matthews; defensive end Austin Shirley; and defensive linemen Brandon Boyce and Sean Seawards.
Matthews, who rushed for 2,155 yards as a junior, sprinted for more than 1,600 yards in his senior year (not including the playoffs). Massingale’s favorite target was Christofferson, a transfer from Boulder Creek High School who had 27 catches in the regular season for 372 yards. Zach Wilson, a junior, was the game breaker, averaging nearly 20 yards per reception, with four TDs. Casey had a team-high 79 tackles, including five quarterback sacks.
While the 18 seniors with scholarship offers will be gone, this summer, recruiters will be back to assess a talented junior class. His play this season will land Massingale on the radars of colleges, and junior running back/safety Josiah Bradley already has had offers from the likes of University of Louisville and Oregon State University.
Saguaro’s status as a must-visit destination for college scouts has made it a magnet for top athletes. Some transfer here, wanting to become part of the recruiting scene and winning program. Others, like Jarrell and Casey, wanted to play for Saguaro for as long as they can remember. As Jarrell put it after a rugged practice: “I wanted to win a championship with my brothers.”
He and Casey have been teammates for seven years, going back to a fifth grade club team, the Scottsdale Argonauts.
“He was a beast, even back then,” Jarrell says of Casey, the hulking linebacker.
“He was tall and lanky, a great athlete,” Casey recalls of Jarrell, who has added considerable muscle to his long frame.
When they came to this high school, Casey and Jarrell had some tough times competing against talented upperclassmen.
“You definitely have to prove yourself,” says Casey. But, Jarrell notes, “there’s a level of respect — no one was trying to lay you out.”
The seniors say that respect starts at the top with coach Jason Mohns.
“He’s a really good coach,” says Jarrell. “He really tells it how it is.”
Casey quickly adds that Mohns has “100 percent honesty. You want to work your butt off for him.”
Jarrell and Casey both plan to study business at college. Casey, a bit undersized for a college linebacker, is a tenacious player who has received a scholarship offer from Northern Arizona University. Jarrell, big and fast and a powerful hitter, has yet to decide which of the coast-to-coast offers he will accept.
Jarrell started getting interest last season, when scouts came to see Byron Murphy, now a freshman at the University of Washington. This time last year, the big draws at Saguaro were then-seniors Murphy, wide receiver Julian Carter and quarterback Kare Lyles.
Massingale is the next man up at Saguaro quarterback, following Lyles, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin, who in turn followed Luke Rubenzer, now a starting defensive back at the University of California, Berkeley.
The play of Saguaro grads in college at some high-exposure games has Saguaro football at an even higher level. Watching over a practice during a bye week midway into the season, Mohns notes that the win broadcasted on ESPN was a really good one.
“Our junior quarterback stole the show,” he says.
The Saguaro coach felt Massingale outplayed Valor Christian’s Dylan McCaffrey, a senior who is one of the most heavily recruited quarterbacks in the country. (He has committed to Michigan.)
Most of the seniors from this year’s team will spend a little time reflecting on the great Friday nights of their high school careers, then start training to be playing on Saturdays. Some of them may even end up playing on Sundays, following the path of two former Saguaro backs who made it to the big time. Mike Brown (1996) starred for the Chicago Bears during his 10-year NFL career, and D.J. Foster (2012) is taking handoffs and catching passes from Tom Brady with the Patriots. Likely to be the next Saguaro pro is wide receiver Christian Kirk, a rising star at Texas A&M University.
As this year’s playoffs approach, the senior stars trying to end their Saguaro careers on top and the coach looking for another championship trophy were all confident about Max Massingale, the quarterback who started the season as a question mark — to outsiders, at least.
“I’ve known him since he was in fifth grade,” says Mohns. “At every level, he’s been a guy I call ‘the dude.’ When the game is on the line, he wants the ball.”
Jarrell says Massingale has earned the respect of his teammates by the amount of dedication and work on his game he has showed. Inside the core of the Saguaro football team, no one has been surprised by Massingale’s outstanding junior year.
“We all knew he was going to be something special,” Casey says with a smile.
But don’t talk to Massingale about recruiting and playing in college.
“Ever since I was a little kid, my dream was to play at this school,” Massingale says, his face dripping with sweat at the end of another challenging Saguaro practice. “I’m living in the moment right now.”
Update: Rack up another state title – Massingale passed for two touchdowns and rushed for 99 yards, leading Saguaro to a 42-14 blowout win over Catalina Foothills in the championship game. Powering to a 14-0 record, in four playoff games, the dominant Sabercats outscored opponents 183-30.