Returning Mountain Pointe starters Nick Wallerstedt, at quarterback, and running back Jakim McKinney give the Pride a solid nucleus on offense. MP reached the 6A semifinals last season. [Kimberly Carrillo/AFN Photographer]
One by one, players on the Mountain Pointe football team walked across the school parking lot to the practice field, placing a hand on the sign that reads “Mark Lovett Field” before entering.
It’s a tradition established in the early 2000s, after former coach and Mountain Pointe Hall of Famer Mark Lovett passed away suddenly on the field from a heart attack.
“They told me I better make sure I do it,” new Mountain Pointe coach Rich Wellbrock said of touching the sign. “It’s a tradition handed down. It’s something the kids feel very strongly about.”
Wellbrock was hired to follow legendary coach Norris Vaughan, who stepped down last December to move back to Georgia near family.
Wellbrock, the former Basha and Desert Edge coach, now hopes to extend the winning tradition at Mountain Pointe, which has nine straight playoff appearances, including eight semifinals, and a state title.
“This has always been a position you look at from afar and it interests you,” Wellbrock said. “The kids know the expectations. We’ve flown under the radar a little bit, and we’re fine with that. When it’s time to turn it up, we will do that.”
This season, hopes for success once again start up front for the Pride.
Seniors Cole Cundary, Alex Vogel and Zach Quihuis anchor the offensive line in front of returning quarterback Nick Wallerstedt.
As a junior, Wallerstedt passed for 1,567 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also rushed for 711 yards and nine touchdowns.
Some of Wallerstedt’s top targets graduated, including Sky Hinojosa, Delano Salgado and Marshawn Gibson.
But a talented group of receivers remain, led by senior Lacarea Pleasant-Johnson.
“I think we have one of the best groups we have had in the past couple years as a core,” Wallerstedt said. “We have a lot of guys that other teams have to look out for.”
Pleasant-Johnson hauled in 27 passes last season for 436 yards and four touchdowns.
Seniors receivers Jatu Gipson, Bashu Delco, Jathan Washington and junior Dominique Davis also will play a vital role in the passing game. Seniors Kenneth Lofton and Jerrick Dickson lead the way at tight end.
Mountain Pointe lost 1,000-yard rusher Gary Bragg to graduation but have another back, Jakim McKinney.
McKinney, known for his explosive burst off the ball, rushed for 1,334 yards and 18 touchdowns.
“I’m excited because it is my senior year,” McKinney said. “I’ve learned a lot from the new coaching staff. Even though people have doubted us, we are going to show them that we can make it far and even win state.”
Graduation and transfers left holes to fill in the Pride’s defense.
Defensive tackle Shomari Hayes graduated. Senior Matthew Pola-Mao, who has the eye of many college recruiters, transferred to Chandler. In the secondary, seniors Delano Salgado, Kenny Churchwell, Marshawn Gibson and Donte Lindsey all moved on to the next level.
But Mountain Pointe has capable replacements, starting up front with defensive tackle Anthony Dedrick.
“We are filling in the gaps really well,” Dedrick said. “I know what this team is and what we can do. We just need to be the greatest we can be and just go out there and play football.”
Mountain Pointe opens a week later than many schools with an Aug. 24 visit to Spencer Rattler and the Pinnacle Pioneers in north Phoenix.
It’s the start of one of the toughest schedules in the state.
Next up is a home game against rapidly improving Mountain View before the Pride heads to Las Vegas for the Polynesian Football Classic to take on national power Bingham High from South Jordan, Utah.
“What a great opportunity for our kids, community and school to be involved in something like this,” Wellbrock said. “That’s what we want. We want to be on the biggest stage not only here in the state but on the biggest stage nationally.”
Mountain Pointe then faces Hamilton, Queen Creek and Highland before taking on Desert Vista in the annual Ahwatukee Bowl.
The Pride wrap the season against Chaparral, Desert Ridge and Corona del Sol.
It will be a tough initial go-around for Wellbrock and the Pride, but they believe that they are up to the challenge.
“The schedule is brutal, but it’s exciting,” Wellbrock said. “The kids know it’s going to be a grind.
“Hopefully, when November comes around we will have learned everything we need to and go push for the gold ball.”