Mesa high schools hit coaching reset in quest to end title drought

New Westwood High School coach Brandon Large, second from the right, talks about what he can bring to the football team at Mesa Public Schools football media day. Large, who graduated from Westwood in 2007, was joined by linebacker Winston Taimikovi, left, and quarterback James Wright. (Photo by David Rodish/Cronkite News)

MESA – From 1978 to 2002, Mesa Public Schools teams dominated class 5A football. Mesa High School, Red Mountain, Dobson, Westwood and Mountain View combined won 14 state championships in those 25 years.

But since Mountain View’s 2002 title in football, no Mesa school has won a ring. Instead, the hardware has traveled south to the Chandler Unified School District, where Chandler and Hamilton have dominated the state’s highest division and, since 2019, the Open Division. The Wolves and Huskies have won 13 of the past 19 state championships.

Although Mesa Public Schools volleyball teams lack the championship pedigree of the district’s football teams, both programs excelled from 1978 to 2002.

No Mesa school has won a state volleyball title since Mountain View in 1999, and the district has only accounted for four championships, all from 1984 to 1999. The Toros accounted for three of those.

Now Mesa Public Schools is working to re-energize its athletics programs. Half the district’s six schools have new football and volleyball coaches. Westwood and Skyline hired a new football and volleyball coach. Red Mountain promoted its football defensive coordinator to head coach, and Dobson hired a new girls’ volleyball coach.

Outside coaching hires, Dobson and Westwood have put substantial money into upgrading their schools’ weight rooms, and there are plans to add turf fields at all Mesa schools that don’t already have them, according to Thomas Eubanks, the district’s athletic director.

The incoming Mesa coaches are confident their teams and the district are turning themselves around. Red Mountain coach Kyle Enders likened it to being “handed the keys to a Ferrari.”

“We’ve been a good program; it’s not like I have to come in and change a lot,” Enders said. “I just have to control it and get it on the right track.”

Brandon Large graduated from Westwood in 2007, and the former Higley High School offensive coordinator now wants to help Westwood return to the winning ways as its new coach.

“It means a lot; it’s a lot of fun,” Large said about returning to lead his alma mater. “When this job opportunity came up, it was something that I put a lot of time and effort into preparing for this job.

“When I was here as a student, Westwood was very competitive. We went to the semifinals my sophomore year (and) the quarterfinals my senior year. We’re trying to get back to that spot. The facilities are getting huge upgrades—we got turf fields; we just put $70,000 into the weight room.”

About 5 miles south of Westwood’s campus, Dobson High also is showing added commitment with a new weight room that is bringing competitiveness and drive to its athletes. Not only is there competition in the Mustangs’ weight room to get stronger, there’s competition to get at all the new equipment.

“Everyone is fighting for one of the new racks, everyone wants to get the new bars,” senior linebacker and defensive back Jashawn Kinney said. “The weight room mentality is changing because everyone wants to get in there and get better and get stronger.”

Just as he did for football, Westwood athletic director Brady Pond reached out to an alum to lead the school’s volleyball program.

Lindsey Palmer came back to Westwood just two weeks ago, shortly after the volleyball team went through its roster cuts. Despite having little time to adjust, Palmer is confident she can steer a program she once played for toward its championship goals.

“These girls are great,” Palmer said. “I love them. (We) immediately built a bond. They work hard, and I work them hard. When the position was available, I knew I wouldn’t let these girls down. So I decided to step in.”

David Rodish(he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

David Rodish expects to graduate in spring 2023 with a master’s degree in mass communication degree.