A hidden gem in downtown Mesa is becoming a destination for former Scottsdale high school athletes who might not be NCAA Division I candidates but who are eager to continue playing at the collegiate level close to home.
Benedictine University Mesa, which was accepted into the NAIA four years ago and plays in the 12-member California Pacific Conference, is aggressively recruiting the East Valley – from Scottsdale to Ahwatukee to Gilbert ‑ to build its programs. This academic year, it is home to 90 student-athletes from the region, including six from Scottsdale-area schools, and they’re making their mark.
For example, Madison Ross, a senior midfielder from Saguaro High, played on the BenU women’s soccer team that made its first-ever trip to the Cal Pac Tournament. Ross earned Daktronics-NAIA Scholar Athlete honor.
Megan Block, a senior middle blocker on the BenU women’s volleyball team from Horizon High, also earned Daktronics NAIA Scholar Athlete honor. To qualify, the athlete must maintain a minimum 3.5 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale.
Brett Adams, an infielder from Saguaro, hit .328 in 54 games at Scottsdale Commnity College before landing at BenU for the coming spring season.
Right handed pitcher Kaleb Young from Chaparral High also is transferring in from community college to a baseball team that went 40-18 last season.
Haley Smith, a junior guard from Saguaro, was a bench player on the basketball team last year. In high school, she was a varsity starter as a junior and senior and a National Honor Society member.
Ashley Lomavaya from Salt River High transferred in to the women’s basketball team after earning Division II District L first-team selection as a sophomore at Black Hawk College in Illinois. She scored more than 1,000 points in high school.
“When we started building this program we asked ourselves how we wanted to do it,” said Steven Schafer, BenU Mesa athletic director and men’s basketball coach. “We realized we wanted to build our program by recruiting our backyard. That was our goal from the beginning.”
Schafer’s 17-year history in basketball coaching and college-athletics administration jump-started sports at BenU, 225 E. Main St., in Mesa. Wanting to compete and win right away in the NAIA, Schafer and all BenU coaches initially emphasized recruiting junior-college and four-year college transfers.
Now that its sports programs are established, BenU’s focus has shifted to targeting Scottsdale and East Valley high school seniors for scholarship offers.
BenU offers 13 intercollegiate sports but does not yet have on-campus facilities: men’s and women’s cross-country run at Mesa’s Freestone Park; men’s and women’s soccer play at Mesa Riverview Park; men’s and women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball all play at Mesa Community College’s Heap Gymnasium; men’s and women’s golf play at Las Sendas Golf Club; men’s baseball plays at Mesa Gene Autry Park; women’s softball plays at Mesa Fiesta Park, and women’s beach volleyball plays at the Mesquite High sand-volleyball court.
“We continue to look for growth opportunities in athletics and that definitely pertains to athletic facilities,” Schafer said regarding plans to build their own. “We have been fortunate to date to have strong partnerships with Mesa Parks and Recreation, Mesa Community College, the Mesa South Stake Center and Seton Catholic High School.”
The obvious missing sport is football. Given that two other Valley small colleges, Ottawa University and Arizona Christian, field football teams and that the Maricopa Community College District has eliminated the sport at all Valley jucos, the Redhawks see opportunity and are eyeing the sport.
“Football has definitely been a sport that we continue to examine closely as we know there is more need for small-college opportunities in the sport in the state of Arizona with the elimination of football at the Maricopa Community Colleges,” Schafer said.
He added that at present there are no plans to add football for the 2019 season.
Among the multitude of BenU athletes from Scottsdale and the East Valley, 26 play baseball – most of any sport – and 17 play basketball on the men’s or women’s team.
In addition to intercollegiate sports, BenU offers a multitude of club sports that are directed by the athletic department. The university offers “Competitive Club Grants,” which act as athletic scholarships, for club spirit squad, e-sports, bowling, badminton, ultimate Frisbee and a cappella choir.
“Benedictine University Mesa continues to research and examine athletic programs that would fit our institution’s mission and vision and bring added enrollment growth and revenue to the university,” Schafer said. “We are launching an extensive club-sports program this fall, 2019, that we feel will help boost enrollment and enhance the on-campus student experience at BenU Mesa.”
Not only are the Redhawks interested in East Valley high school and junior-college players, they’ve been successful taking East Valley transfers from four-year schools. Athletes often initially go to another part of the country for college. According to BenU baseball coach Brian McCabe, many soon return home. He’s on the lookout for them.
“Not every kid wants to stay home. They want to go out and see the bright lights,” McCabe said. “Having gone to school in the Midwest, I would see a handful of guys from Arizona come out there but the second the first snowfall came they went home.
“A lot of our guys went to other schools and then transferred back.”
McCabe is in his third year at BenU and his first as head baseball coach. For two years he was pitching coach and recruiter, helping build the young program.
McCabe and his staff have reached out to 15 area high school seniors for the 2020 season, he said.
“There’s so much talent in Arizona,” McCabe said. “East Valley high school baseball is incredible. We know we can go five miles from BenU either way and we could find 25 guys that would fit our program.”
Talent at East Valley high schools goes well beyond baseball and basketball.
Tim Marchisotto, newly appointed BenU women’s soccer coach and associate head coach of the men’s team, makes recruiting East Valley athletes standard operating procedure.
He credits the coaches at the high school and club levels for preparing athletes to compete in college, especially since most sports now practice year round.
“There are a lot of coaches in the East Valley that are involved in club or even college programs,” Marchisotto said. “I think the high school programs are beneficiaries of that leadership. When we are recruiting players from the East Valley, they’re ready.
“We want to be able to keep athletes in state. We don’t want them to go off to Colorado, California or other popular parts of the country. It’s important for them to realize they don’t have to go out to those other places. Instead, they can stay home.”
Scottsdale intercollegiate athletes at BenU Mesa
Brett Adams SR INF Saguaro
Kaleb Young JR RHP Chaparral
Ashley Lomavaya SR G Salt River
Haley Smith JR G Saguaro
Madison Ross SR MF Saguaro
Megan Block SR MB/RS Horizon