Eastmark football wins first school championship

The Eastmark Firebirds, in just their third season, captured the 3A state championship Saturday, Nov. 26 by defeating top-ranked Thatcher 41-21 at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee. (JJ Digos/Tribune Contributor)

Eastmark vividly recalls the first time it lined up against Thatcher on the football field back in late August.

The Firebirds held a 21-7 lead at the half, but that was quickly taken away by the Eagles run game. Eastmark ended up losing on a last-second field goal. So, when the Firebirds again led Thatcher 21-7 at halftime of the 3A state championship game on Saturday, Nov. 26 at Desert Vista High School, they knew they couldn’t let off the gas.

And they didn’t.

Instead, Eastmark continued to showcase its high-powered offense en route to a 42-21 win over the Eagles, which secured the school’s first state championship.

“The first time we played them we didn’t have three of our key players,” Eastmark coach Scooter Molander said. “To shut down their offense is very difficult. Thatcher has a lot of tradition and they’re extremely well-coached. We’re proud to get this victory, for sure.”

The Firebirds simply fired on all cylinders. Senior quarterback Mack Molander saved one of his best performances of the season for the biggest game of his career.

Even when pressured by Thatcher’s defense, he extended plays with his legs. When he was given time to throw, he picked apart the Eagle secondary. Behind his arm Eastmark jumped out to an early lead and only extended it as the game went on.

Eastmark’s first score of the game came early in the second quarter. Mack, scrambling out of the pocket, took it in himself from 15 yards out. A fumble by Thatcher allowed the Firebirds to capitalize on the short field and Mack again ran into the end zone on a 1-yard quarterback sneak.

Thatcher managed to close the gap late in the second quarter, but Mack quickly led the Firebirds down the field again. He found senior wideout Austin Johnston, who made a leaping grab along the sideline, to set up the offense inside the red zone. From there, the two connected again to take a two-score lead into the half.

“I honestly have no idea,” Johnston said of his catch along the sideline. “I don’t practice that. It just worked out. It was just a great feeling. The coaching staff put trust in me, and I was able to make a play.

“We’ve worked so long for this moment and it’s great to see it finally pay off.”

Everything was working for Eastmark. The offense couldn’t be stopped and the defense, led by linebacker Kaden Armstrong and defensive lineman Ramarr Williams, limited Thatcher’s patented ground attack.

Thatcher found some momentum out of the break as quarterback Brandon Napier orchestrated a long drive that resulted in a touchdown.

But Mack connected with Johnston twice more in the second half and ran another in himself to put the game officially out of reach.

“Everything worked,” Mack said. “We had counters to everything. Coaches came with a great game plan. They would switch up the four or five-man front. But we would just adapt to everything they threw at us.

“(Coaches) did a great job preparing us for that every single week.”

Mack finished 14-of-19 for 268 yards and three touchdowns through the air. He added 67 yards and three more touchdowns on the ground. Johnston caught seven passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns.

Jaxon Baily added 53 receiving yards of his own on four receptions. Thatcher running back Cody Jones found success on the ground, accumulating 139 yards and a touchdown. But Eastmark’s smothering defense forced three fumbles, all of which resulted in points.

The win for the Firebirds was met with tears and boisterous cheers from Scooter and the rest of the coaching staff. When he was first hired, 13 players showed up to a camp. He told them they would be the ones to help grow the program into a powerhouse.

It took some help from key transfers, including his own son from Queen Creek, but they accomplished the goal.

“It doesn’t happen unless you envision it,” Scooter said. “Those original 13, I’m so happy for them. And the sacrifices families make. It’s not like 35 years ago when I played. It’s a tremendous sacrifice. It’s worth it, I would say now.”

Eastmark’s first season of football took place during the COVID-19 year. The Firebirds made the playoffs for the first time last season and lost in the first round. That gave them a chip on their shoulder.

They knew they had the talent to make a run. And even with key players transferring out of the program to 6A and Open Division Basha before the 2022 season, they still were among the favorites all season.

The loss to Thatcher in Week 2, according to Scooter, changed the mentality of the team. They wanted to leave no doubt about who they were. They had some slip ups, including the first half of the game against 4A top seed ALA – Gilbert North. But even in that game they came back to win in overtime.

Overall, it was a special season for a team that will likely be in the 4A or 5A conference during the next realignment. But for now, they plan to enjoy their 3A championship and the start of yet another dynasty in the southeast Valley. And Scooter has credited his players for the program’s success.

“It’s not about me, it’s about us,” Scooter said. “I wanted to get that trophy out of my hands and into the hands of the players.”