Despite location and lack of exposure, Desert Edge football continues to excel

Desert Edge High School football players get ready to walk onto the field before practice. The school has had a recent history of success despite being located on the outskirts of the Valley and in the less-populated city of Goodyear. (Photo by Rafael Alvarez/Cronkite News)

GOODYEAR — Twenty miles from downtown Phoenix, 40 miles from Chandler and 30-plus from Tempe and Scottsdale. That’s how far Goodyear Desert Edge High School is from some of the Valley’s highly populated high school football cities.

For Desert Edge’s football program, however, the distance has not prevented the Scorpions from being successful on the field. Since 2010, the team has compiled an 80-18 record, making the playoffs every year, winning a state title in 2015 and being the state runner-up in 2012. The team is 6-2 as it heads into Friday’s matchup against Deer Valley.

To put into perspective, from 2005 to 2009 Desert Edge compiled a 16-37 record, with its best season coming in 2009 when it finished 5-6. The change is dramatic, and coach Jose Lucero has been along for the ride nearly every successful year the program has had since.

It began with former Desert Edge coach Rich Wellbrock, who is now the coach at Chandler Basha High School, and continues with Lucero. Lucero, who is in his first year as Desert Edge head coach after spending a year as North Canyon’s head coach, was an assistant coach for Wellbrock starting 2010. He was also the offensive coordinator of Desert Edge’s lone state title team. The journey, Lucero said, has been a wild one from the get-go.

“It was our first year here,” Lucero said. “Prior to that, they had not won a playoff game, or anything like that, and our first year it was a bunch of kids who didn’t know any better and (were) just kind of doing everything we told them to do.”

“We went on a crazy run, and somehow, managed to get into the semifinals that year. It was a pretty awesome season.”

The school is part of the 5A conference (it was recently announced it will be moving down to 4A following AIA realignment) and according to U.S. News & World Report, has an enrollment of 1,744. While each high school from the 5A conference is relatively close in size, the population size of where some of the other 5A schools are located varies greatly. The most recent U.S. Census reports that the city of Goodyear has a population of 77,258. Compare that to Scottsdale and Glendale each having over 240,000 people and Peoria having more than 160,000 and the difference is noticeable.

Having a smaller population has not affected the Scorpions’ play on the field. As the years progressed, the team matured. Even though the Scorpions lost their first state championship game in 2012, Lucero said it helped get the program on the statewide map. It was not long until the program reaped the benefits of what it sowed.

“In 2015, finally winning a state championship was pretty big,” Lucero said. “And now, in terms of the West Valley, we’re one of the bigger programs in the West Valley, and I believe well-respected around the state.”

Lucero attributes some of the success to Wellbrock, and the philosophy and culture he instilled into the program when he first arrived. In fact, the relationship Lucero has with Wellbrock goes back to before Lucero’s coaching days.

“Coach Wellbrock has been huge for me,” Lucero said. “Actually, I played for him in college and then I coached with Coach Wellbrock every year since 2007, until last year. (That) was our first year apart from each other and he’s been great. He’s always been a mentor to me and always will be.”

Desert Edge athletic director Talmadge Tanks also attributes the program’s success to Lucero’s understanding of the game and his leadership, as he helped establish a winning tradition with Wellbrock. For Tanks, it was a no-brainer to hire Lucero as the program’s new coach, following Wellbrock’s departure.

“He has great football knowledge,” Tanks said. “As far as building a winning tradition, he has a winning tradition here. He went to North Canyon for that one year of (a) successful term and he turned that program around. And he’s a family guy, community guy. We thought that he was the best fit for Desert Edge.”

The accomplishments of Desert Edge might be a statistical anomaly to some, Lucero said, but the rareness of it and having players from several different backgrounds is what he believes has helped the program.

“Some of them have played a lot of football, some of them haven’t played very much,” Lucero said. “That’s one of the unique things about being out here so far west is that we kind of get a pretty diverse group of kids that come in.”

One of those kids is senior offensive lineman Max Wilhite. Wilhite, who recently committed to New Mexico State, has been on varsity all four years, and was a part of the state championship team when he was a sophomore. To Lucero, Desert Edge athletic director Talmadge Tanks and principal Julie Jones, Wilhite is the perfect example of what Desert Edge football represents: intelligence, leadership, athleticism and discipline. It’s been a game-changer for the program.

“When Max came in as a freshman, he was in a very unique circumstance because he was a freshman who was going to be asked to start on the offensive line, which is a very physical position,” Lucero said. “Most of the time when you hear about freshmen starting on varsity football, it’s usually skill positions and receivers, defensive backs and stuff like that. But to come in and play o-line as a 14-year-old kid, 13-year-old, whatever he was, was a big task.”

“It’s been great having him around the program and right now, he’s almost another coach out there on the field. He knows every position and he does a good job of being a leader.”

“He’s a gentle, loving, caring giant,” Tanks said. “Then when he crosses the white line, he turns it on. But, with personality, he is one of great value, family value. He’s a great student. He works well with his teammates. He’s a model student, and you take that model student and you couple it with great athletic talent, you can’t go wrong with that.”

“When you have individuals like Max that have all of those things, he’s a role model and sets an example,” Jones said. “When Max talks, or Max says something, others listen and they’re watching to see what he’s doing. So what happens is then he is setting that legacy of what the expectation is.”

For Wilhite, he naturally enjoys and takes an interest in school. The importance of doing well in school, Wilhite said, is something his parents make him aware of constantly, so getting good grades does not come as a surprise. Even though, Wilhite said, people might view linemen as the “stereotypical dumb, big people,” that is not the case with him. Wilhite loves math and plans to pursue a degree in that area.

With Desert Edge located on the outskirts of the West Valley, the spotlight the program attracts might be limited. Senior defensive back Trayvon Williams, who was also a part of Desert Edge’s state title team, said he feels the program does not get enough attention and the school’s location could be a reason for it.

“Just where we’re at,” Williams said. “Everybody thinks the east side has all the talent. Everybody thinks the east side is going to do this and that. Come to the west side, see what we have going on.”

“We have a lot to prove. Even though we won state two years ago, we still have a lot to prove. We want to be as good as we (possibly) can. We want to show everybody we can be as good as the east side teams.”

Jones shares a similar point of view, not just with the school’s football program, but the school as a whole.

“I don’t feel like Desert Edge gets enough attention all the way around,” Jones said. “We have so many great programs here, and so many terrific, talented, compassionate kids in our athletic programs across the board.”

“I feel like we get overshadowed a lot, even in our academic performance, and the growth, because we are a Title One school, and everybody has this perception of what a Title One school is. We’re on the south side of the freeway, we’re way out in the West Valley.”

Title One schools are those defined by the state as having a high-percentage of students from low-income families.

With the program having success for the past six years, the hope is is that the attention will grow in the future, regardless of where the school is located.

“I don’t think at this point because of the number of East Valley schools that are in contention year after year after year, I don’t think you’re ever going to get that exposure because of coverage,” Tanks said.

“Most of the coverage is on the East Valley. As we get more (and) more schools dominating sports in the West Valley, you will see that happening. (Goodyear) Millennium is coming along with their volleyball, their softball, so we have some things happening in the West Valley that we think over time, and in the next five to 10 years, you’re going to see more exposure, I think.”

“I feel like we’re kind of on the cusp of becoming one of those elite programs up there with some of those schools like the East Valley schools that every year they’re competing for a state championship and things like that,” Lucero said. “We kind of need to break through a little bit more, but that kind of would be a goal to take that next step to that upper echelon of schools. And I think we have the right pieces in place to continue to move forward in that direction.”

Only time will tell whether the Scorpions will gain more exposure, but one thing remains certain: The belief in the program continues to remain high and the results on the field reflect that.

“I’ll put Desert Edge against any school, any day across the board because that’s how confident I am about what we do here each and every day with our kids,” Jones said.