Karé Lyles

Former Saguaro High quarterback Karé Lyles benefited from Scottsdale Community College’s football program when he needed a second chance.

The ruling on the field is that junior college football in Scottsdale and across the Valley is dead.

Interested parties say there is indisputable evidence that juco football programs benefit student athletes and they remain hopeful that the ruling is overturned. It may come under review.

For now, what appeared to be the final games were played across the Valley last weekend.

Scottsdale Community College coach Doug Madoski, whose team still has a bowl game to play, was honored to receive a standing ovation prior to the Artichokes’ regular-season finale.

Even more surprising to him was that his entire family from California had flown in to greet him and the rest of his team as they walked into the stadium before the game.

“I didn’t know they were coming to town,” Madoski said after Scottsdale’s 44-17 win over Glendale. “It gets a little more real when your whole family flies in.”

In his 13th season leading the Artichokes, Madoski is accustomed to the atmosphere surrounding the final game home game of a season. But this one was different.

On Feb. 5, the Maricopa County College District board announced the termination of junior college football programs in the Valley. The announcement left players and coaching staffs from Scottsdale Community, Mesa Community, Glendale Community and Phoenix College questioning their future.

Nearly 500 players take the field in junior college programs across the Valley every year.

A few months later, Pima Community College in Tucson announced that 2018 would be the last season for its football program, also. Without Valley teams, there were none to schedule that are close enough to make continuation cost effective.

The announcements came as a surprise to many, including Madoski, who credits his own success to junior college football.

“I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for junior college football,” Madoski said. “I was a JC player in California and if it hadn’t been for that experience and those coaches there I wouldn’t be here.

“I think when you really look back, it’s about cutting your teeth at this level. That literally changed your entire life. I have no idea where I would be if it weren’t for that experience.”

From the desire to improve grades to rekindling their love for the game, every player has a reason for taking the junior college route, even if it wasn’t their first choice.

As a senior at Saguaro High in 2015, quarterback Karé Lyles lit up opposing defenses, passing for 3,561 yards and 43 touchdowns, helping the Sabercats win the 2015 state championship.

His accomplishments earned him a scholarship to his father’s alma mater, Wisconsin. Lyles quickly realized that it wasn’t a good fit.

After just one season in Madison, Lyles transferred to SCC, a decision that he believes led him to find true appreciation of the game.

“You don’t have the little things and luxuries that I got at Wisconsin,” Lyles said. “To truly find out if you love this game and see if you are willing to put everything on the line for it, I think I did that.”

Lyles, who passed for 2,016 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, hopes to help Scottsdale win the Valley of the Sun Bowl on Dec. 1 before he heads out to yet another Division I program.

He remains unsure of where that will be, but continues to offer words of encouragement to other junior college players like him who are seeking a new home next season.

“Keep dreaming, regardless of the situation,” Lyles said. “You talk to wise men and women in your life and they will say that you have to go through adversity to get success.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t turn out the best for everyone in terms of their football career but I think just being here and embracing the struggle and grind of a junior college team makes the life journey more meaningful.”

As players and coaches espouse the positive impact of juco football on their lives, a group of former coaches continues to push the district board to reconsider the decision to cut the sport.

Dave Arslanian, a former coach at Scottsdale, Snow College in Utah and various Division I college programs, leads the effort to save junior college football in Maricopa County.

Arslanian and Larry Philpot – Scottsdale CC’s first-ever coach – immediately put a plan into place when they heard that juco football was being cancelled. It began with pushing for the election of four candidates to the MCCCD Governing Board who were open to communication to keep the programs alive.

On Nov. 6, two of those candidates – Tom Nerini and Marie Sullivan – were elected. Two existing board members said they, too, are open to discussing the fate of junior college football in Maricopa County.

“We are very optimistic because of the commitments that have been made,” Arslanian said. “We need to not let a handful of people make that decision. We need to let the community make the decision. It’s their money that supports these programs.”

Arslanian has witnessed firsthand what football has done for thousands of players who have passed through Maricopa community college programs for decades.

For many, it gives them a way out of dangerous communities. Others may benefit from a new way to receive an education beyond high school.

Arslanian believes taking the programs away would do more harm than good.

“I don’t know any coach that trains kids to only be football players,” Arslanian said. “We teach them discipline, respect, teamwork and how to be a good student. I see it over and over again. You would be amazed at what this game does for many kids.”

The benefit that players at Mesa Community College gain is a source of pride to coach Ryan Felker.

“We’ve had 180-something guys go to four-year schools on scholarship in the last six seasons,” Felker said. “We’ve had first-round draft picks in the NFL. That doesn’t happen without this.”

Following Mesa’s win over Phoenix College, fans were seen and heard pointing at Felker, exclaiming that he was going to be the reason junior college football was saved in the Valley.

Felker offered little explanation of the comments, instead smiling and admitting that he and others recently received “some good news.”

“There’s some things,” Felker said. “We are going to keep working. There’s some other things coming down the line that we haven’t discussed that will definitely impact what is happening.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what happens over the next few months.”

–Contact Zach Alvira at zalvira@timespublications.com and follow him on Twitter @ZachAlvira.