TEMPE, AZ – After battling and falling short for five consecutive seasons, the Marcos De Niza Padres reached near perfection.
The Padres completed their regular season with a 9-1 record after starting 7-0 and became the third seed in the 4A state championships.
While there have been a few outstanding offensive and defensive performances from individual players, the Padres programs embody community and brotherhood.
Head Coach Anthony Figueroa knows that the chemistry between the group is something special and uses that to their advantage.
“It's a special group of guys that really do care about each other, love each other,” Figeuroa said. “They have each other's backs, they respect each other. They respect these coaches, they've bought into what we've been preaching and they're seeing all their work paying off. If they do the right things, great things happen.”
“I think just the binding of the players,” said defensive coordinator John Sloan on what sets the team apart from others. “Doing everything the right way and understanding that they gotta be coachable. And if they're coachable, and they do things the right way. They're gonna see success on the field and off the field too.
With that support system, comes both group support and a lot of accountability throughout the group.
‘'I've said this before time and time again,they know when they mess up,” said Figueroa. “They're their own worst critics and so we lift them up because at that moment, yelling and doing things like that are not gonna make anything better.”
“So even with the teammates, one of our coaches talks about a bucket of crabs and when that one tries to get out of the bucket, the other ones bring them down. And I think for too long, there may have been too many ‘bucket of crabs’ situations. So they really uplift each other,”
This change in the program is something that offensive coordinator Robert Ortiz has seen throughout his time with Marcos De Niza.
“I really think the biggest difference with Coach Figueroa coming in is the buy-in on our kids,” said Ortiz. “I think we just finally hit a point where we’re having conversations with the upperclassmen of ‘ look, you know, we've done things your guys' way the last two years and it hasn't necessarily panned out for us.”
“So if you buy into what we're asking you to do when you do things always, at least you can do is give it a try. And if it works, then it works and if it doesn't, then you know then obviously we must not be very good fit.’”
This “buy-in” from the players has allowed for “Socratic discussions,” where both the coaches and the players can collaborate on what they see and it allows the players to take ownership of what they do on the field.
Offensively, a balanced offensive line with players such as CJ Hopkins, allows any player that may be taken out to have three or four adequate replacements. While defensively, the alignment assignments have pushed Marcos De Niza over the edge.
Coach Figueroa believes that this isn't possible without working together, especially on the coaches side.
“This is a team effort,” Figueroa said. “These coaches invest so much time into what we're doing, and are away from their families and coming to work early or this or that and really just dedicating all their time to the offensive and defensive side of the ball.”
The positive effects of the program also shine in the players themselves. Quarterback and punter Tegan Ligouri-melendez says the balance in the team also stems from having fun.
“It's just the ability to know what we have to do, but also we'll have fun while doing it,” said Melendez. “The other teams I've been on that 's all it's always been about. You know, go go go every single second…It’s supposed to [be] fun.”
Additionally, the Padres have more of a homegrown program with few transfers that long snapper Cameron Royalty says has helped this team mold into the position it's currently in.
“I think we're finally just coming together,” Royalty said. “Most of our fourth years have been playing with each other. So we are finally coming together as a team. They care about each other. And you can see each of us starting to trust each other and so we could do our assignments.”
The Padres will play a Round of 16 4A State Championship tonight against the #14 Thunderbird Titans.