Jeff Scurran tucks a full head of silver hair beneath his trademark white Nike visor on a blustery late May evening. The larger-than-life figure in Arizona high school football looks out over a practice field tucked between two softball diamonds at Catalina Foothills High School.
The wiry coach simultaneously analyzes the performance of the 30 or so high school athletes completing their drills while pinpointing the ones he expects to have breakthrough campaigns this fall.
He knows the Falcons, fresh off a 6-5 campaign that included a first round exit in the Division 4A state playoffs, will have to do more with less.
But Scurran knows how to do just that, having led a Sabino High School team with 29 players on its varsity roster to a state championship 28 years ago.
He knows that the key to winning on the gridiron rests in the bond built during the grueling summer months, when weeks of monotonous drills build a foundation for success.
Scurran cited the 2016 Falcons team, led by then-quarterback Rhett Rodriguez—son of former Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez. That team compiled an 11-3 record, blazing its way to the 4A state championship before falling to Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School, 42-14.
“We have to do with a lot less than everybody else does, and the way you do that is you just try and maintain quality,” Scurran said. “And if the kids catch on and if you stay healthy, it can work like it did with our group two years ago.”
Scurran knows that his staff, in tandem with veteran players, will have to hone the team’s core set of skills over the course of the pad-free practices, which is something they’re looking forward to.
“You have to rely some of the kids that are been in the program that get it to be teachers and instructors that the newer kids that teach them the way,” Scurran said. “And I think this year we’re back to that with this group.”
One of the Falcons’ greatest strengths this coming season rests on its institutional knowledge at skill positions on both sides of the ball.
Scurran expects rising senior quarterback Joaquin Holm, who spent last year learning from Chris Kowalcek, to have a huge season.
“[Holm] understands the process and what it takes to win,” Scurran said. “It’s not just the player that makes the prettiest pass or does this or that. It’s about whether you can lead your team to victory with a lead part being the most critical factor.”
Holm is thrilled to have the chance to take over as the next gunslinger at Catalina Foothills, inheriting a roster loaded with in-game experience.
“It means a lot, I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since freshman year and since when I was a little kid,” Holm said. “So, I’m excited. Excited to lead these dudes. I think we can do great things this year.”
The Falcons will have to find a way to replace Kowalcek’s team-leading 1,021 rushing yards, but should find help in rising seniors Dominic Bynum and Isaiah Bae, who ran for 877 and 474 yards a year ago, respectively.
Leading receiver Michael Yslava, who caught 12 passes for 182 yards as a junior, will also return—giving Holm a target on the outside in the passing game.
The Falcons’ defense is no less stout this fall, led by returnees Bobby Heitzinger, Kareem Swailem, Gordon Dick and Luke Mitchell—who had 395 tackles and 5 tackles for a loss a year ago.
Mitchell believes this year’s team has a stronger bond than last year’s squad, which should allow the Falcons to fly high this fall. The rising senior linebacker is leading an effort during the team’s summer practices to reinforce that bond, so the team can hit the ground running when the season starts against Buena on Aug. 17.
“We’re hoping to definitely have better chemistry than we did last year,” Mitchell said. “We’re going to use the summer to prepare mentally for that.”
Scurran believes this year’s squad has enough talent across the board, with a bounty of younger players emerging in key roles, to find success this fall.
For Scurran, the challenge of finding a way to do more with less is what keeps him enthralled with the art of coaching—embracing a ‘next man up,’ mentality.
“That’s all I ever asked to these kids is to get out there and scrap and find way to compete,” Scurran said. “Can we condition enough? Even though we have less guys, everybody else, can we find a way to hang in there and, and follow our strategy and do the right thing so that in the end we’re right there with people at the end of the games.”
Scurran hopes to field a 35-man varsity roster this summer, leaving little room for error or injury. Such little depth gives younger players a chance to compete for a starting position, which can lead to greater success during the season.
“We are a team because of our limited numbers where we have to play young kids and you don’t see that a lot around town,” he said. “We have to do that, and just these guys just all seem to get along and that can translate into something that’s a lot of fun to coach.”
Mitchell believes the Falcons’ smaller roster allows players to see the field sooner, which gives them the chance to grow their abilities faster than at other schools.
“Everyone out here, even though we don’t have a lot, they all want to compete so it’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Mitchell said. “It’s really a good thing for us, because we all get a lot of opportunities.
Part of Mitchell and Holm’s confidence comes from the plethora of experience that Scurran brings each day, with 302 wins in his coaching career.
For Mitchell, the opportunity to play for a living legend like Scurran is unrivaled, giving him an on-field role model to look up to.
“He’s adapted to the right coaching style and how we need to be coached so we can come out here every day and be comfortable and understand what we need to do in a way that suits us,” Mitchell said.
Holm is honored to play for Scurran, and to learn the game from someone who’s transformed the sport in Southern Arizona.
“Just knowing you have a coach that knows a lot about the game and is great at what he does,” Holm said. “I just want to be a part of his legacy and I want to add onto it.”