AllSportsTucson Phoenix Correspondent Brittany Bowyer
Vail’s newest high school, the Mica Mountain Thunderbolts, is in a unique position in its second official school year. After the pandemic uprooted traditional education plans for numerous students last year, many are on campus for the first time this semester after doing classes virtually last school year. For some, they’ve taken advantage of Vail’s open enrollment boundaries and have switched from a rival school, while a majority are freshmen and sophomores new to campus with no idea of what to expect.
For newly built schools, laying a solid foundation to build a strong varsity program always brings a slew of obstacles, ranging from who to hire as head coach to what the culture of the athletic program will be. Nearly every school across the nation faced these same growing pains at some point in time when first opening their doors to students; However, COVID-19 and its impact on schools set to open in 2020 brought a never-before-seen set of challenges to navigate.
“Last year was our opening year, but when we’re supposed to be starting our first year and getting to know everyone and building our foundation, COVID is hitting and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. So, we did not have the ability to roll out our season the way we wanted to last year and kind of hit the ground running,” said Mica Mountain Assistant Principal Jay Campos.
Plans to build Mica Mountain’s athletic program into what will very likely be an all-around Southern Arizona powerhouse were already in the works long before the virus swept across the nation, bringing everything to a halt. In Jan. 2020, weeks before the world got upended, it was announced by the Vail Unified School District that former Cienega Head Football coach-turned principal Nemer Hassey had been named the principal of the newest high school.
Hassey had already been approved by the district’s governing board as the planning principal in May 2019. Joining Hassey as the Assistant Principal would be Campos, the long-time Sabino coaching rival-turned Athletic Director. The hiring of two elite football coaches from local schools was a clear message on the level of thought and commitment to success the Thunderbolts had put into the process.
Shortly after, former Cienega Athletic Director Whitney Holland also made the move to Mica Mountain. Moving six miles down the road, he made the transition in the summer of 2020 and stepped in as the Bolts’ Athletic Director.
Unfortunately for the Bolts, plans for a normal fall-opening, with students bustling about in the hallways exploring their new school as teachers get to know the students and help build a sense of community, was far from what they’d originally anticipated.
“We started out with around 90 football players before we started going into all the protocols and mitigation strategies. By the end of the season, we finished with about 35 football players, because our students had to go remote if they wanted to stay on the football team so they wouldn’t expose other people to potentially the virus. So it’s been a challenge from that first standpoint,” Campos said.
With athletes mandated to remain home from school last year as the pandemic continued to rage through Arizona, and a handful of others making the choice on their own, it almost felt more like a “soft opening” of the pristine campus.
Nearly a year after the announcement of Hassey, Campos and Whitney’s hiring at Mica Mountain, Southern Arizona coaching legend Pat Nugent was officially named the varsity football program’s first-ever head coach.
“I think the whole thing for why I came over was the whole process worked with Nemer Hassey and Jay Campos, you know, the experience with everything they’ve done with Tucson football,” Nugent said.
With his most recent success coming as the former Head Coach of Cienega, Nugent is widely regarded as one of the best in the state. For the Vail Unified School District and Mica Mountain administration, Nugent embodied the traits of a successful head coach who could help lead them towards their of establishing a strong overall athletic program.
“All of our goals are the same and the success we want to bring to Mica Mountain is huge. It might take a couple of years, but there’s nothing else that we want to do,” Nugent said.
As a first-year varsity program, Nugent is in the position to shape the principals and the basics into his own from the ground up. While that has a lot of benefits, it also comes with its own set of drawbacks.
“Everything we’re trying to do here is brand new, so we have to build that culture and build that chemistry between the kids and right now we are nowhere near that. It’s going to take some time with the sophomores and freshmen, but sooner or later that culture will be built,” Nugent said.
The biggest drawback being the lack of experience among a number of the players. Currently, nearly half of the school’s enrollment consists of freshmen. Many of the upper classmen who did participate were members of last year’s dwindling freshman/sophomore team, who only saw action twice last year against Mountain View – Marana and Sabino.
“We didn’t have the year last year we wanted to. We played two games, and we were hoping we played eight or nine games last year and now we’d have a great foundation. But the reality is, this is our first year. This is our first time doing things the way coach wants to do things from the very beginning, and putting those protocols and procedures in so we are excited to see how that looks,” Campos said.
“One of those things you have when you start a new school is you’re going to have some of those kids who don’t know how to play football, where when you’re at a traditional power, those kids don’t come out because they know they probably can’t. But we have a lot of kids who want to be a part of football and want to be a part of what we’re trying to build here,” Nugent said.
In his past, Nugent has always worked with varsity programs and players who usually have more overall experience by the time he starts working with them. He says as a coach, the process can be a test of one’s patience at times, but then he’s quickly reminded of how special this opportunity is.
“A lot of days we’re frustrated, but then you look at the big picture and you look around you say, ‘Every one of these kids is going to be back with us next year,’ so that’s the positive thing. As frustrating as it is some days, you have to look at it as ‘Wow, this is the same group we’re going to coach next year,’ and by getting that game experience, we expect big things next year,” Nugent said.
Nugent says it’s also beneficial because the kids are all coachable. They’re all learning from a blank slate, instead of changing things on them, and he feels it will help them in the long run.
With students still relatively new on campus, there’s still a bit of a sterile vibe as they work to establish a culture and cultivate traditions among the students. While some of the best traditions are those that have a story behind it, many students, athletes and coaches are just taking the initial steps and becoming acclimated to their new environment.
“It’s hard because you’ve got to see what you have first and every day you have to look at what you do… right now we’re laughing because we’re trying to learn the fight song when NO ONE at the school knows the fight song,” Nugent said.
Once you build a successful program, players will start to gravitate towards you on their own, and it’s something that the Mica Mountain staff fully understands. With Vail Unified School District’s open enrollment plan, which allows students to choose what high school they attend in the district, Mica Mountain anticipates some of the top talent in the area will be rocking the black, blue and silver.
“Students want to go to a place where they can be successful, right? So we have a lot of key elements, number one being the facilities. We have a brand new turf field, we have a great, state-of-the-art weight room, we have our own strength coach. A lot of high schools don’t have their own strength coach, and his whole day is dedicated to getting our athletes bigger, faster and stronger. So that’s one element, but without the right people in place running the programs and being the coaches, it doesn’t matter how great your facilities are,” Campos said.
“You know the old saying, ‘If you build it, they’ll come.’ So we know if our program is successful, and all of our programs are successful, kids are gonna want to play here,” Nugent said.
In just its second year, the Bolts will be playing a bit of a split schedule. Currently, they’ve been able to pick up three varsity games to add to their schedule, but most of their scheduled games for the season will be played on the JV level.
Nugent says the two senior members on the team are the only players who will be impacted by the split schedule, as they will only be allowed to play in the varsity games.
One benefit the Bolts have this year is the home-field advantage, only having to hit the road twice this year, barring an unforeseen schedule change.
The Bolts are highly anticipating a full season under Coach Nugent and are eager to get after things on the field. While they know everything will be a bit of a learning curve still, they’re excited to build a strong future for the program at Mica Mountain.
“Next year, we’ll be full varsity with almost a full senior class, being able to go forward with a full varsity slate,” Campos said.
Here’s the Bolts’ full slate:
Mica Mountain Football:
Sept. 2 vs San Tan Foothills
Sept. 9 vs Salpointe Catholic
Sept. 16 @ Buena
Sept. 24 vs. Coolidge (Varsity)
Sept. 30 – BYE
Oct. 8 @ Douglas (Varsity)
Oct. 14 vs Tucson
Oct. 21 vs Ironwood Ridge
Oct. 28 vs. Walden Grove.
Nov. 5 vs Amphitheater (Varsity)
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07