High School Football

Culture change at Tucson High evident under Neveleff after first game

First-year head coach Zach Neveleff, center, praises the effort and execution of the Badgers following a Tucson High win against South Mountain on Friday night. (Kevin Murphy/All Sports Tucson)

In his first season at Tucson High and as a head coach overall, there’s no doubt head coach Zach Neveleff has the Badgers heading in the right direction after a season-opening 62-24 win at home over Phoenix South Mountain on Friday night.

The Badgers are coming off a 3-7 season under interim coach Malcolm Nelson, who replaced legendary Richard Sanchez when he resigned a month before the 2022 season after coaching the program for a season

Pima County Sports Hall of Fame inductee Sanchez previously coached Sunnyside to two state championships.

Sophomore quarterback Derek Mesa experienced considerable playing time as a freshman in 2022 and believes this year’s team feels different under Neveleff, on and off the field.

Mesa had four touchdown passes before he came out of the game in the third quarter when the game was well in hand for the Badgers.

“I’d say, last year, we weren’t mentally prepared. I’d say our minds were everywhere,” he said. “We weren’t making it to classes and stuff. So, this year, we’re more mentally prepared. We’ve got the coaches to actually put in work for us, and we came out with the ‘W,’ a big ‘W.'”

For senior running back Prince Mugisha — who had 135 yards and two rushing touchdowns Friday night — the team chemistry feels different this season playing for Neveleff and a coaching staff with some new faces, including former Palo Verde and Arizona standout Adam Hall.

“There’s a lot more connection among the players. We’ve got a better bond. We know each other on and off the field. Last year, we were all separated, and we weren’t connected as we used to (be),'” he said. “When we came on the field, it was just everybody, just individualized. But this time, we came out as a team, we took it as a team and we won as a team. Always, and we’ll forever be like that.”

Neveleff learned a lot about his players on Friday night as well.

“They’re tough. I learned that they play with tremendous effort, and they have great attitudes,” he said. “That’s kind of what we we’re wanting them to have. We wanted them to eat tonight. Effort, attitude and toughness, and they were able to do that all game long.”

He believes the hard work he has instilled within players in the program played huge dividends on Friday night when they could see the success they earned because of it.

“They’ve worked extremely hard, and my message to them was, ‘Look how hard you work and then look at your results.’ It’s a cliché, but you make your deposits every time. You keep making your deposits, and then come Friday night, it’s time to cash out,” Neveleff said. “It’s time to reap the rewards for everything you’ve done, every gasser you’ve ran, every player workout you’ve done, every stadium you ran, every mile you’ve ran, it all comes down to this.

“If I teach and demand, they’re going to prepare and perform, and that’s what they did. They’ve been preparing , and tonight they got to perform.”

Tucson High offensive line coach Dean Greenburg presents Zach Neveleff with the game ball on Friday night. (Kevin Murphy/All Sports Tucson)

Imprinting the value of working hard in practice upon players may be the first step in building a winning culture for coaches, and Neveleff lived and breathed that approach as a player and assistant coach with Salpointe. 

The 31-year-old former Salpointe fullback and linebacker played for and coached under the legendary Dennis Bene and helped develop a long list of highly productive running backs under Bene and Eric Rogers with the Lancers, including Mario PadillaDavid CorderoAnthony WilhiteElias Bettis Roberts and Dailan Goodman, and one of the state’s top running backs historically in Bijan Robinson.

Mugisha is taking advantage of Neveleff’s track record of running back development.

“He’s (Neveleff) taught me how to get my pad level low. He’s taught me how to be aggressive. He’s taught me how to condition because he knows that I’m going to be carrying the ball for the team,” Mugisha said. “My only hope, not my hope, but my goal for this season is for people to know that he coached me instead of Bijan.”

Neveleff praised Mugisha’s performance on Friday night but doesn’t want him to dwell too much on the moment.

“Prince is our captain. He brings a great spark to our offense. He played tremendous tonight. I can’t say enough about him and his character,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, no one really cares, and we’ve just got to work harder, and that’s what I instill in him. He had a great night, but it’s time to bounce back. He can celebrate tonight, but come 6 a.m. tomorrow morning, we’ve got to get back to work. We’ve got to regroup, and get refocused. But he played awesome. He did a great job” 

Mesa is especially excited to have Neveleff guiding him behind center because of their relationship off the field.

“I’ve known him my whole life, I’ve grown up with him. My mom is best friends with him, so he’s been basically around my whole life,” he said. “I see him a like, another father figure for me.”

The feeling is mutual for Neveleff, who is impressed with Mesa’s development as a player and a leader as a sophomore.

“Derek’s phenomenal. I’ve known the Mesa family for a very long time now,” he said. “He’s great. He’s tough as nails. He’s in there. He’s poised. He was not afraid to sit back there, and throw the ball. (He) made all the right reads and commanded the huddle. He did so fabulous tonight. Another kid with just great effort and toughness.”

Tucson High will now prepare for a matchup at home against Marana next week — which coincidentally lost 35-14 to Neveleff’s former team, Salpointe, on Friday night. Neveleff hasn’t faced the Tigers since his playing days with the Lancers.

“Coach Steward (Marana head coach Phillip Steward) is a phenomenal guy, a phenomenal coach. What he’s done with that program over there, I could only say great things about him and his program. He runs an A-class program, and I’m up for the challenge, and I can’t wait to line my kids up against his.”

Tucson High (1-0) hosts Marana (0-1) next Friday at 7 p.m. The game was originally slated to be at Marana but the Tigers’ new turf field has yet to be installed.


 ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writer Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. Murphy is a journalist product manager with the Green Valley News & the Sahuarita Sun. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU.

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