Desert Mtn. quietly becoming powerhouse in north Scottsdale

Desert Mountain’s rise as a 5A power has been short, but the Wolves have something special brewing under head coach Conrad Hamilton, junior quarterback Brady McDonough, “left,” and junior wide receiver & safety Dylan Tapley. (Dave Minton/Progress Staff)

For many years, Chaparral’s football program has been the face of north Scottsdale high school football, with Saguaro dominating the south.

Notre Dame Prep, a conference below the Firebirds, has had its fair share of success, too, making it to back-to-back 5A Conference title games in 2017-18.

Chaparral has played in the last two 6A title games and has been a contender every season under coach Brent Barnes.

Then there’s Desert Mountain. The 5A school nestled in the hills north of Shea Boulevard. It’s a quiet area with mountain views. But on the football field, the Wolves have become a threat.

“It’s been challenging and fun,” Desert Mountain coach Conrad Hamilton said. “We have a lot of support here. The community has welcomed us, and I think our players are hungry for success.”

Since Hamilton took over the program in 2019, the mindset among players has changed.

Their work ethic is stronger, they believe they can compete with and beat any team in the state. They know they aren’t a destination school that receives in-state transfers on a yearly basis.

Aside from a couple of transfers from out of state — something Hamilton was surprised by — the Wolves have found success with players that come from the surrounding neighborhood. That’s rare in today’s high school football world, especially in Arizona with open enrollment.

Many of the freshmen that enter the program are kids who have never played football before. That’s why Hamilton and the rest of the staff’s job has been astounding. They don’t just teach football concepts to football players.

They teach the game to ordinary students and athletes from other sports.

“We’ve recruited our own school,” Hamilton said. “We have a number of soccer players in our program. We don’t have very many basketball kids, but we’ve gotten lucky with kids who have moved in from out of state.”

Desert Mountain went 3-7 in Hamilton’s first season. The following year, when COVID hampered all programs, the Wolves went 4-3.

In 2021, they took a giant leap toward powerhouse status. Desert Mountain finished 12-2 overall and made a trip to the 5A Conference semifinals. It was the best season for the program since quarterback Kyle Allen and tight end Mark Andrews were juniors. Both are now in the NFL.

A large majority of players from that roster were underclassmen, setting the stage for more success to come in 2022.

Heading into their matchup with Arcadia on Friday, Sept. 30, the Wolves were a perfect 4-0 to start the season. That included wins over 6A Mountain View and rival Chaparral for the first time since 2017.

It’s a nod to what Hamilton and his coaches and players have been able to accomplish.

“It’s grown a lot since coach Ham came in,” junior quarterback Brady McDonough said. “The offense, defense, we’ve all been in sync, and we’ve been clicking. Every day we have a championship mindset. That’s our motto. We do that, we’re going to be good to go.”

McDonough has been one of the key reasons for the Wolves’ success so far this season. He missed most of last year with an elbow injury but has stepped back in to fill his role now as a junior.

He still splits time with senior Drew Tapley, who threw for over 2,000 yards last season. The two have become a dynamic duo, as they have combined for nearly 900 yards through the air and 15 touchdowns.

One of their favorite targets it’s Drew’s younger brother, Dylan, a 6-foot-4 wide receiver that doubles as the team’s safety. His long frame allows him to go after jump balls on both sides, and his speed and long strides helps him outrun defenders with the ball in his hands.

The chemistry he has been able to create with both quarterbacks — especially Drew — has been key for Desert Mountain’s success. He feels the team has what it takes to continue its run of wins. And they’re aiming for the Open Division.

“We’ve gotten better every year,” Tapley said. “It would be great to shock the world. We just want the best competition. We don’t want to back down from anybody. If we make it to the Open and have to play Chandler, Basha, Saguaro, any of those, we’re not going to back down.”

Desert Mountain is by no means deep with its roster. On a good day with no injuries, Hamilton estimates 35 players in total. Everyone plays a key role on the team, and many are asked to play multiple positions on both sides of the ball.

The grittiness is something the team thrives off of. And it has players that genuinely love the game.

Nolan Clement is one of the top defensive ends in the 2023 class. He has taken 6-foot-5 freshman defensive tackle Tony Cumberland under his wing and together they have made Desert Mountain’s defensive line a force alongside 6-foot-6 defensive end Dillon Hipp, who is also a three-star tight end.

On offense, Max Shefrin leads the backfield while other wideouts such as Jack Freeburg prove to be weapons for the two quarterbacks. Desert Mountain’s offensive line is also primarily made up of juniors.

Hamilton knows the season is still young and there is plenty of room for improvement. But he aims to continue building something special in north Scottsdale at Desert Mountain.

“We’re doing some good quality things here,” Hamilton said. “All the hard work from a lot of different people are starting to pay off. All you want in life is an opportunity to be successful, an opportunity to compete and an opportunity to go out on the football field and overcome new challenges.

“That’s what we’re doing right now.”

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