A Maricopa school has brought home a state championship on the gridiron.
Heritage Academy recently won the Canyon Athletic Association middle school Division 2 flag football title, defeating Heritage Mesa, 22-20, in overtime to complete a 13-1 season.
“This is a big thing for Heritage,” said head coach Jason Schalow. “It’s their first championship of any kind in football.”
When the season started, Schalow and his assistant coach, Kevin Doscher, did not have visions of a state championship. In fact, the volunteer coaches wondered if they could be competitive.
The Heroes’ season began in December with just three players, including Doscher’s son Brennan.
“We were down and out at that point,” Schalow said. “We were seriously worried we wouldn’t have enough players to play the season. We didn’t have a final roster until after winter break.”
Schalow and Doscher took a creative approach to recruiting players. Since this was the first year of tackle football at Heritage, several players switched to the flag team after a two-week clinic on tackle football. They also dipped into another sport to generate recruits – baseball.
“We sold the baseball coach on the benefits of playing football,” Doscher said. “We told him it would be good for them to do something different and avoid getting burned out on baseball. So, in the end we got three of our best kids from the baseball team.”
Flag football for 6th, 7th and 8th graders is played with six players and no linemen, so speed and quickness are far more advantageous than size. The Heritage coaches, who knew what they were looking for after coaching a 10-12 age group for several years, evaluated their roster and brought in players who fit that mold. They also recruited from the flag football class offered at Heritage. The team included one girl, backup center Hailey Mattson.
“We had to evaluate their speed because it’s all about speed and quickness,” said Schalow. “We started with simple drills because a lot of the kids hadn’t played football before. We ran the (passing) route tree and did basic drills like backpedal, pass rush, agility and speed drills.”
From the group that came out for the team, the coaches cut the roster to 14, the size determined by the capacity of the school’s travel van.
Going into the first game, the coaches were not sure exactly what they had. They found out quickly, as the Heroes demolished Imagine Prep from Coolidge, 47-0.
“I jumped for joy after winning that first game,” Schalow said.
“We had an idea after the first game that it would be a good season,” Doscher added.
They were right. The Heroes stormed through the regular season with 10 wins and just one loss, outscoring their opponents by a margin of 457-125 for the regular season. The only loss came against Legacy when Heritage had several top players out.
Heritage was led by quarterback Noah Lewis; Dominic Ascencio, a 6th grader who became a starter (replacing an 8th grader) at pass rusher; safety and running back Johnny Uribe; and receiver Brennan Doscher. The Heroes rolled into the championship game by downing Ridgeline Academy of Anthem, 29-12, and Phoenix’ South Valley Prep, 48-16.
The final looked like another rout as Heritage Maricopa jumped out to a 20-0 lead over its Mesa counterparts, but despite several drives deep into Mesa territory, the Heroes couldn’t punch in another score and regulation time ended with the game tied at 20.
Heritage Maricopa scored on its first conversion try in overtime, on a pass from Lewis to Brayden Potter. Then on Mesa’s possession, Brennan Doscher batted away a pass that would have tied the game. The Heroes had their first state title.
“We had so many kids who played so well for their first time playing flag football,” Doscher said. “It’s a skill to grab those flags – it’s not easy and they all worked really hard to improve as the season went on.”
Schalow agreed the team’s success was built on the players’ commitment and hard work.
“Seeing these smaller kids overcome their fears of playing against the physically bigger teams was really great,” he said. “At first they would say, ‘there’s no way we can win against kids that big.’ But Kevin and I just told them if they follow the plan and do what the coaches say to do, they would be fine. And they did it and found out that it worked, and they gained a lot of confidence from that, which really benefited us in the playoffs.”
Doscher said the attitude of the Heritage players put them on the road to success.
“At the beginning of the year, half the players were timid, they didn’t know what to do because they were new to football,” he said. “But we always stalked them up and instilled confidence in them. Early in the year when we would get a first down or score a touchdown, you could see their confidence level grow. They worked hard and practiced hard, and they wanted to come to practice because they saw how fun it was to win and to keep improving.”