The Arizona Republic
Eastmark title turns dream into reality
Scooter Molander still couldn’t quite believe it. As he was interviewed by a throng of a half dozen reporters Saturday night, his poise bore striking resemblance to the calm with which he spoke back in August.
In August, taking reprieve from the triple-digit heat in a hallway outside Eastmark’s gym in east Mesa, he said, “The ultimate goals will take care of themselves if we stay in the moment.”
On Saurday, those goals materialized. While Scooter Molander spoke, his son, Mack, provided proof. In contrast to Scooter, who said, “it hasn’t really sunk in yet,” Mack bore an unrelenting smile as he posed with the 3A state football championship trophy.
That gold-plated ball served not just as evidence of what Eastmark accomplished Saturday, beating Thatcher, 4221, but of what it has accomplished over the past four years.
In late 2018, Scooter Molander wasn’t quite sure what the future held. A year earlier, he had stepped down from his head post at Brophy after 13 years to spend more time with his ailing parents. His father passed away just five days later, but his mother survived after nearly dying of a heart aneurysm. In order to spend more time with her, Molander took a less demanding assistant coaching role with Brophy’s baseball team.
“I couldn’t do the job anymore and do it right,” Molander said.
Eventually, the pull of football began to once again beckon. The opportunity, though, had to be perfect. At Eastmark, it was. He heard about the job from Travis Schureman, now the head coach at Queen Creek. That recommendation alone carried gravitas. The two have known each other for decades. If Schureman thought it was a good fit, Molander figured it likely was. Beyond that, he knew the leadership at Eastmark, which made the opening “a no-brainer.”
Plus, Eastmark was a blank slate. When Molander took the job in late 2018, the school — located in the embryonic exurbs of southeastern Mesa — was still eight months from opening. This could be anything.
“It doesn’t happen unless you envision it,” Molander said.
For him and the Firebirds, that vision began in March 2019. On the first day of spring camp — before the school had even opened — 13 kids who would attend in the fall showed up. Nine of those kids helped lift the championship trophy Saturday.
But there were also, of course, the newcomers — those who shared in Molander’s vision for what the blank slate could become.
Critically, there’s Mack. Last year, he transferred from Queen Creek to Eastmark as much by coincidence as anything. With his older brother Miles having graduated and taken his car off to college, Mack no longer had transportation to Queen Creek. But there was also
more playing time and the knowledge that his father would do everything possible for his college recruitment.
On Saturday, that manifested itself in the type of performance that fills backyard childhood dreams. Molander accounted for all six of Eastmark’s touchdowns. He rushed for 67 yards and three scores and passed for 268 and three.
“It really does mean a lot,” Molander said. “It’s a dream come true for both (my dad and I). It goes deeper than a football family when your dad’s involved.”
171 of Molander’s passing yards — and all three touchdowns — went to Austin Johnston, the other half of Eastmark’s unstoppable aerial attack. A transfer from Hamilton, Johnston arrived in 2020 for Eastmark’s first varsity season because his dad had coached with Molander and “had nothing but good things to say about him.”
He, too, took advantage of the blank slate. After Saturday’s performance, Johnston finished his senior year with 1,603 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns.
None of those 22 were bigger than the bomb he caught on the very first play of the fourth quarter. Up 14 and Thatcher still within striking distance, Molander dropped back and delivered a perfectlyplaced ball into Johnston’s bread basket over the top on a deep post. Without breaking stride, Johnston caught the ball and sprinted not just into the end zone, but through it. Only once he reached the running track behind the goalposts did he finally stop, turn and wait for a stream of teammates to join in a high-flying, shoulder-bumping celebration.
“That was the best,” Johnston said, ranking the score among his three on the night. “Just ‘cause it was icing the game. That was the dagger.”
Twelve minutes later, Eastmark’s win was official. The Firebirds met in a series of jumping, falling hugs, as champions do. At the center of the party, a group of players dumped a cooler of red Gatorade over Scooter Molander’s head.
He was, once again, a state champion. Just as he envisioned.