The Pusch Ridge Christian Academy’s varsity football team gathered in a wide circle in prayer around coach Kent Middleton at the end of its practice session on Tuesday.
The players stood apart, holding their helmets high, social distancing in a large group, but they could not be closer with their hopes for completing a 2020 season.
Their objective of playing football this fall is becoming more of a reality by the day after the COVID-19 pandemic brought uncertainty during the summer.
“We’re just ready to hit,” said senior running back/defensive back Evan Lovett, son of former Arizona receiver Lamar Lovett.
Pusch Ridge and Salpointe Catholic, both private institutions, are the only local high schools that are scheduled to start their 2020 seasons on Oct. 2.
The Lions’ 3A schedule is already set with seven games starting with a home game against San Tan Valley Eastmark, which is in its first season of varsity football.
Pusch Ridge 2020 Schedule
Salpointe’s schedule is not set with only two games slated at this point.
Casa Grande coach Jake Barro has indicated the Cougars will open at Salpointe. The AIA has posted that game on the official schedule. The Lancers’ other game is Oct. 16 at Phoenix Pinnacle.
Pusch Ridge broke away from its 3A South rivals from Southern Arizona — Sabino and Sahuarita — to set its schedule.
The seasons for Sabino and Sahuarita are on hold because Pima County superintendents stated last month that Tucson-area public schools will not compete until in-person instruction takes place. The switch from remote-only learning to hybrid scheduling on campuses may not start until mid-October if Pima County Health Department disease data continues to show COVID-19 case numbers declining.
“We’re blessed,” Middleton said. “I think it’s important for kids to be out and doing what we’re doing.”
Middleton enters his first season as a head coach after serving 32 years as an assistant coach. He has coached at Mountain View, Ironwood Ridge and Catalina Foothills. He also was an assistant at Pusch Ridge the last two seasons under former coach Jerry Harris.
“It’s been fantastic,” Middleton said of his experience at Pusch Ridge starting with small-group workouts about a month ago. “It’s a great place to be. The kids are really respectful, dedicated and committed. The administration has been fantastic.
“The circumstances have been difficult, but we’ve been able to work around it and stayed safe. That’s the biggest thing.”
Middleton’s staff includes former longtime head coaches Gary Minor (Ironwood Ridge) and Anthony Coronado (Marana). Offensive coordinator Brent Bartz and assistants Calvin Knox, Bob Ingram and Lamar Lovett contribute to Pusch Ridge having one of the most veteran staffs in the state.
Eastmark, Pusch Ridge’s season-opening opponent, also has a veteran staff led by Scooter Molander, who coached Phoenix Brophy Prep to two state titles in his 13 years there.
Evan Lovett, whose uncle Lamont also played at Arizona and is now a radio broadcaster of the Wildcats’ games, is one of the Lions’ veterans on a team that includes a stellar sophomore class.
Running back/defensive back Bryce Jewell, running back/linebacker Tyler Mustain, tight end/defensive end Will Way and running back/linebacker Blake Dean each played extensively on the varsity as freshmen last year when the Lions finished 5-5 overall.
Way, at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, is particularly impressive physically and should draw attention from major colleges by his senior season.
Despite the mix in experience, Evan Lovett, who rushed for 775 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, said his team is “tighter than ever.”
“We’ve all grown up together, and we’re forming a strong bond right now,” he said. “It’s really iron sharpens iron with me.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.