Scoring on and off the field: Junior college league creates opportunities for local players

Jayden Wooden overcame a number of obstacles to record a stellar senior season for Morgan State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. [Submitted]
Jayden Wooden overcame a number of obstacles to record a stellar senior season for Morgan State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. [Submitted]

The Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference is all about second chances for football players — both on and off the field.

Entering his second season as the coach of the league’s Salt River Scorpions, Larry Davis feels the HJCAC has a mission that doesn’t involve a pigskin.

“My passion is using football to shape the lives of young men,” said Davis, who moved to Maricopa in 2007. “It’s really about helping them prepare for the biggest game they will ever play — that’s the game of life.”

Former Maricopa athletes and coaches are staying active in the sport they are most passionate about. The five-team league will begin its fifth season next month.

Davis, an all-conference nose guard at the University of Texas at El Paso, had brief runs in the Canadian Football League and NFL Europe. For most of his career, he’s been a coach and administrator in Maricopa youth football leagues.

Jayden Wooden, who will join Davis’ staff as a defensive backs coach, is emblematic of HJCAC’s potential.

A two-time state champion at Peoria’s Centennial High School, Wooden launched his collegiate football journey with a redshirt freshman season at Northern Arizona University. That was followed by a season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and an injury-plagued campaign at Morgan State University, a Baltimore HBCU.

Despite those challenges, Wooden’s story has a happy ending.

Coach Larry Davis celebrates with some of his players after a 2022 game. The Salt River team finished 5-4. [submitted]
After leaving NAU, he returned to the Valley, attended Mesa Community College and played for the league champion Gila River Hawks in the first year of the HJCAC in 2019. The game film from that season helped attract the offer to play for the Morgan State Bears.

Three years later, he started all 12 games at safety, recording 45 tackles, a key interception and a forced fumble in a victory over defending conference champion South Carolina State. He did it all while earning all-academic and third-team all-Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference honors.

“I bet on myself and bet on this league,” Wooden told InMaricopa as he looked back on his career. “I want to give back to the league that gave me so much. I get to mentor and coach these younger kids. They can see themselves in me because I was in their position.”

Staying in the game
Davis, Wooden and their fellow Salt River coaching staff will guide players next season who prepped at Maricopa High School and Sequoia Pathway Academy. Among them are Tyshaun Mooney and Steven Forrester.

Mooney played his sophomore and junior seasons at Maricopa before transferring to Sequoia. In a half-season as a senior running back in 2021, he rushed for 665 yards and nine touchdowns. Several Division III schools wanted him to shift to safety, but he accepted an offer from Davis to remain on the offensive side of the ball.

“Coach is a father figure and his motivational words help keep my head on straight,” said Mooney.

“This year, I feel I can do better than I did in high school and impress the coaches,” he said, adding that he’s pining for a roster spot at a four-year school.

He is taking online classes in dental hygiene at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, an additional education option that was created for HJCAC players in 2021.

“I want to graduate with a 3.5 GPA and earn my degree,” he said. “I made a promise to my mom that I would be the first of my siblings to go beyond the AA (degree). We have conversations every day. Mom always helps push me down the right track.”

Forrester played slot receiver and running back at Maricopa. His first college stop, Oklahoma Panhandle State University in rural Goodwell, Okla., was not a good fit. He came back home to the desert last year and recorded his first start in the HJCAC with Salt River this fall.

Tyshaun Mooney (No. 6) lines up for Sequoia Pathway during his senior year of high school. [submitted]
Tyshaun Mooney (No. 6) lines up for Sequoia Pathway during his senior year of high school. [submitted]
“I couldn’t play the first year (in Oklahoma) as a redshirt, but practiced, got my reps in and got my grades done,” Forrester says. “I’m ready to play.”

He is taking biology classes at Snow College and looks forward to more football and more schooling after receiving his two-year degree.

“Arizona is a good football state,” he added. “I don’t mind the heat. I like the culture here, where everybody comes out and supports the teams.

“I’m looking forward to getting together with the team, bonding and having a good season.”

Beyond the turf
HJCAC formed after the Maricopa County Community College District dropped the sport due to rising costs. League founders didn’t want local players to miss out on the chance to continue on the playing field and in the classroom.

The nonprofit league funded by business now welcomes athletes from Florida, Texas and Colorado, among other far-reaching places.

“It was easy for me to buy in to what they were doing,” noted Davis, who was also head coach for North Carolina state champion South Point High School in 2018. “Every young kid deserves an opportunity to further their academic and athletic career.”

Salt River players must sign a contract committing to the “three Cs”: classroom, character and competition. If they live up to their end of the bargain, the coaches will do everything they can to market the players to four-year schools.

Davis said at least eight players moved on after the 2021 season with 18 more receiving offers after last season.

Maricopa resident Perry Mitchell, who has coached with Davis at various levels, is outbound facilitator for the Scorpions and works tirelessly in contacting coaches and sharing game film to help players find the right fit after junior college.

Each of the five teams in the league recruits players from regional areas. The city of Maricopa, however, is part of an independent zone.

“We all recruit there,” said Davis, who credits his staff of experienced coaches and newcomers alike with the team’s success. “We’ve been pretty fortunate. Maricopa has been good for us. We have some players from (Maricopa) in their second year, so their time is now.”

Wooden went more than 700 days between games during his adventurous playing career. He ended up with that outstanding senior season, a degree and a good job in the insurance industry.

“The HJCAC brought out a side of me that I had not tapped into before,” Wooden insisted. “I found an unwavering will to succeed and the determination to make it happen. It’s all about taking a chance on yourself.”

More Maricopa connections
This spring, Sequoia Pathway Academy’s Michael Luna-Fruit, Elijah Woods and
TJ Kaley announced they will play for the HJCAC’s Papago Pumas in Mesa while taking online classes at Snow College.

They followed Margerum, who is the new defensive coordinator for Papago.

Margerum resigned from Sequoia Pathway after the team went 5-5 in 2022. He was replaced by Taylor.

“This year, the boys had a lot more opportunities to go out of state, but they chose to stay home,” Margerum said. “I’ll keep my boys with me.”

Luna-Fruit, a kicker, was a multisport athlete at Sequoia Pathway and decided to focus on football.

“I was leaning more toward basketball my junior year,” he said. “But in my senior year, I had a teammate that passed away, so that drove me to keep playing his dream through me.”

Woods is a versatile player who excels in the wide receiver role. Kaley has been a consistent cornerback.


This story was first published in the August edition of InMaricopa Magazine.