Eastmark football coach Scooter Molander, wide receiver Austin Johnston, “middle,” and quarterback Mack Molander have high expectations this season as the Firebirds return several key starters on both sides of the ball. (David Minton/Staff Photographer)

It hasn’t taken long for Eastmark’s football program to rise to the level of championship contender in the 3A Conference. 

They got their first taste of postseason action last year as they fell to River Valley in the first round of the playoffs. That came on the heels of a 2-6 campaign with a majority of their players freshman and sophomores playing varsity football for the first time and during the pandemic in 2020. 

Now, in its third season, Eastmark’s roster is bigger and filled with talent across the board. So much so that the Firebirds have become one of the favorites to hoist the gold ball in November at the end of the season.

“I was reading something this morning, it was a quote from the great Bill Russell,” Molander said. “It said, ‘Do you listen to the boos or the negative comments or the racism?’ He says, ‘No, why would I? I don’t listen to the cheers.’ 

“The point being, if you’re locked in, we control what we control. We’re excited to be considered because it shows we’re building something special. But it’s all hypothetical. Everyone has to go out and play.” 

It should come as no surprise Molander has already built Eastmark up to a high level. He won two state titles at Brophy in his first three seasons and made the playoffs 12 out of the 13 years he led the Broncos.

He resigned after a 1-9 season in 2017 and was hired to start the Eastmark program a year later in 2018. His accolades while at Brophy, along with the booming Eastmark community that continues to grow in East Mesa near the border of Queen Creek, quickly attracted talent to the program. 

Eastmark graduated some players last season, but this year presents Molander’s biggest senior class. Most have been at the school since they were freshmen, and they have the chemistry to show for it. There’s also a sense of pride that comes along with that. They started the program. They built it into a playoff contender. They set the foundation. 

“Super excited about the leadership,” Molander said. “As coaches, we don’t have to say too much anymore. They handle it. They’ve embraced the lifelong skills we teach and it’s exciting coming out to practice. We aren’t having to babysit out here.”

Molander’s son, Mack, has become one of those leaders for the program. A senior, he’s heading into his final season playing under his father at the quarterback position. 

Mack said it’s a unique circumstance being a coach’s son. There is some added pressure that comes along with it. Even more so due to the position he plays. But it’s also become enjoyable. 

He passed for 1,367 yards last year in six games for the Firebirds. He threw 18 touchdowns and just three interceptions. He also rushed for 268 yards and a pair of scores. 

Mack, like the other seniors, are aiming for a trophy to cap off their high school careers. They feel as if they have the talent to do it, even with three of their top players transferring to nearby Basha during the summer. 

But with other talented teams in the 3A Conference, including Valley Christian in Chandler, they know they have to take it a game at a time. That starts Saturday when Eastmark travels by plane to take on Robertson, the defending 3A champion from New Mexico. A flight and stay in a hotel will be a unique experience, as it is the first out-of-state trip for the program. 

It represents another opportunity for the team to become even closer while showcasing what it can do outside of Arizona. 

“It’s exciting, we’re ready to go. We’ve been ready since the summer,” Mack said. “We’re ready to go against somebody else. We did a lot of fundraising for this trip, and I think we earned it after having a good season in our second varsity season last year. 

“I think we can really show, at least New Mexico, what’s over in Arizona.”

Along with Mack, Eastmark also returns Diego Rodriguez, who was one of the Firebirds’ leading rushers last season. Linebacker Kaden Armstrong led the team last season with 131 tackles as a junior, and Ramar Williams figures to be a standout at defensive end and tight end after a big off-season that saw him grow physically and mentally. He is a junior. 

Mack will benefit the most from returning wideout Austin Johnston, who led the team with 1,186 receiving yards on 63 receptions last year with 15 touchdowns. The two have grown close to the point where they hangout nearly every day after practice. 

They know what is at stake this season and with this team. They want to do everything in their power to set an example for younger players and go out on top.

“We want to set an example for the next class,” Johnston said. “It’s all good on the field but building the school and having a good leadership standard is important to us. We’re going to work hard in the weight room and practice field every week. It’s going to pay off every Friday night.”

No matter how the season goes, it’s one Molander will cherish. Not only will it be his last with Mack, but all the seniors he has grown close with. 

To him, they aren’t just his players. They’re his sons. 

“I’m trying to remember to never take one day for granted and to enjoy every moment,” Molander said. “It’s my last go-around with (Mack) and some of my other sons, and what I mean by that is these kids have been in the program for four years. They’re going to be really missed.”

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