Paradise Honors’ varsity football enters this abbreviated season with a fighting chance.
Part of this optimism stems from the fact that the varsity squad is no longer the only football team on campus. Last year the Panthers had 35 kids in the program, all on varsity, and had to cancel their JV schedule.
“This year I put a lot of focus on getting incoming freshmen and keeping our middle school kids here. We had our biggest freshman class we’ve had in a while. We’re up to 23 freshmen. We’ve got 51 kids in the entire program this year,” first-year coach Josh Goodloe said.
The coach said this scenario will be great for the program’s development. Freshmen played varsity last year before they were ready.
A new region and schedule with reduced games and pedigrees of opponents should be better for the Panthers’ psyche.
Five 3A playoff teams dished out some lumps to Paradise Honors during its 2-8 2019 season. None of those teams remain on the seven-game slate adopted by 3A — and 2A runner up Phoenix Christian is the only playoff team in the way.
“We have a lot of teams that are building a program and we can compete with. I think it’s a great schedule for us to build a program with and compete. They go in every Friday knowing it’s going to be a battle. The parity worked out very well,” Goodloe said.
Goodloe arrived in 2019 as the offensive coordinator for Chad Talley — who returned to Copper Canyon once that head coaching job opened in January. Paradise Honors promoted Goodloe in the winter.
He was able to hire a staff and get some work in with the team before COVID-19 shut the charter school down in March. His offense stayed the same but the defense changed, then changed some more when new defensive coordinator Malik Starks received an offer to coach linebackers at Juanita College in Pennsylvania.
Strength coach Lyle Hollins added defensive coordinator to his duties and plans to attack offenses like his players will attack the weights.
“This year with our new defensive coordinator, he’s all about chaos. We’re putting a lot of guys in the box and on the line,” senior safety/tailback Brian Le said.
Paradise Honors junior running abck/safety Brian Le breaks free of a Chandler Valley Christian tackler in the backfield during an Oct. 18 game at the charter school in Surprise. [Courtesy Mako Photography]
The Panthers handled their install in Zoom meetings and tested players on the knowledge of formations. Players got to know the new staff including running backs coach Bill Laing, offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach/assistant head coach Mike Young, defensive line coach Richard Ruelas and offensive line coach Lionel Varvel.
Paradise Honors also used Zoom to replace some of the bonding exercises that it normally would have done during camp.
“We did a couple of team-building exercises. A big one we did is called love letters. Their parents wrote them a letter and told them how they appreciated them and loved them. They’re loved at home and they’re loved out here so there’s no need for them to be successful in life. That was a big turning point for them in the program this year,” Goodloe said.
The school shut down offseason workouts June 22, ahead of the curve in Arizona. Conditioning did not resume until mid-August.
“For me the hard part was practicing for a month straight and then taking two months off. We’d be in shape and the next thing you know, we’re all out of shape,” Le said. “It gave me hope when our schedule came out.”
Goodloe said the kids understand football better than they did two weeks before last season’s opener. The Panthers are trying to make up for lost time in the weight room.
Eleven seniors will lead this group and, fittingly for a 3A school, most will play on both sides of the ball. Seniors set up workouts at some local parks, Taking ownership of program as they realized they were playing their last season together.
“A lot of the quiet leaders turned into loud leaders,” senior quarterback Chad Harrell said.
Despite all of the two-way players on the roster, one player at only one position holds the key to the team. And it’s Harrell.
The quarterback has blossomed during the offseason. He broke his collarbone last summer and only played in the final game of 2019, throwing for 276 yards against Bourgade Catholic.
“For us it’s huge because last season we spent the whole offseason implementing a system for him. And we didn’t really have a backup that took snaps when he went down,” Goodloe said. “Trey Hermann stepped up and played quarterback. Now he’ll get to play receiver where he’s natural at.”
Hermann was more of an athlete playing quarterback, and now gets to transfer those skills to slot receiver. Leading returning receiver and senior David Berry (33 catches, 372 yards) joins him in the slot.
New weapons are available, as sophomore receiver/defensive back Mikey Young transferred in from Centennial and will be eligible midway through the season. Senior basketball players Antuwon Bowers and Kyle Burroughs give the receiving corps an injection of length and athleticism.
“We haven’t had continuity on offense until this year, so it felt like we were hopping right into it,” Barry said.
Le and fellow senior Mason Ashton will split carries with junior tailback Devin Tobin, who moved in from California.
Ashton is the program’s top linebacker and nearly as important of a comeback player as Harrell. Ashton missed 2019 with an injury.
“Injuries killed us last year, for sure. This year’s schedule is a little easier than last year’s so we’re just hoping to make the best of it as seniors,” Harrell said.
Sophomore receiver/safety Vernon Henderson arrived from Washington and could see some playing time. Both sides of the line are fortified by three returning senior starters — Benjie Castro, Victor Ortiz and Colton Sopko.
Through this most unusual offseason the kids learned from the larger coaching staff, and Goodloe said, the coaches love the atmosphere and the kids. Players are grateful to get the chance to develop — and more to the point, a chance to play again.
“They don’t take practice for granted. In the past, some days they would go through the motions. Seeing that they lost a lot of stuff. Spring sports lost out. Now they go hard every day,” Goodloe said.