Zone Read: Cornering the Southeast Valley

Are we nearly midway through February?

Really?

It’s been a busy start to 2021 and there’s plenty to get to so let’s jump into this week’s “Zone Read.”

Coach DaVonte’ Neal

Anyone even remotely familiar with Arizona high school football knows the name, DaVonte’ Neal. 

There wasn’t much Neal didn’t accomplish during his decorated prep career at Chaparral a decade or so ago. Two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year, ranked by ESPN as the best “athlete” in the nation, the top player in the West and #1 overall prospect in Arizona. 

Neal, who had 23 Power 5 offers, scored 35 total touchdowns as a senior in 2011 for the Firebirds before signing with and playing his freshman season at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly. He later transferred to Arizona and played two years in Tucson for Rich Rodriguez at wide receiver and, eventually cornerback.

After his playing days ended, his football path pivoted.

Last year Neal coached cornerbacks at Dobson High and recently was hired by one of the top programs in the state in the same role.

The coaching ride has moved quickly for Neal who is anxious to make a positive impact on his players, both on and off the field.

“I love the game,”  Neal said to the “Zone Read.” “I wanted to be around it as long as I could and I always wanted to give back and help kids who don’t have a male figure or positive role model in their life. It’s a great feeling knowing that the kids and coaches value my insight on the game. It’s very rewarding when I see them succeed.”

Neal, a father himself, credits his dad Luke for helping push him to be the best he could be on the field. 

As far as coaching, he’s grateful Dobson gave him his “break” in high school ball before moving on to Higley and assisting long-time head coach Eddy Zubey.

It all started with a phone call, then a difficult fork in the road to navigate.

“He let me know he was interested in me helping coach up the corners,” Neal said of his initial talk with Zubey. “It was a hard decision for me to make because of the commitment I made to [Dobson head coach Bill Godsil]. I had to take some time to talk it over with my family, as well as Coach Godsil, just to make sure that if I [decided] to take the job over at Higley, I was leaving [Dobson] on good terms. To be honest, without Coach Godsil and the Dobson coaching staff and players, I may not have some of the opportunities that have been presented to me now.”

The now 28 year-old Neal, a dynamic talent and personalty in high school, hopes to instill that same type of swagger into the young men he’s coaching.

“The best part about getting to know and teach the kids is just watching them progress,” he continued. “Seeing them make plays and celebrating with them has to be the best part because I’m still a big kid myself and love to boost my guys’ ego.”

Look for the Knights’ secondary to play with an extra edge this fall.

DaVonte’ Neal won’t have it any other way.

Back Home, Back East

Few coaches in the Valley have earned the respect of Roy Lopez.

The 26-year veteran has won a lot of games, including 88 at Marcos de Niza in nine seasons. What followed was a three-year stay at Tucson Sunnyside and, most recently, Tolleson. His two-year stint with the Wolverines included just one season on the sidelines as the TUSD shut down the 2020 campaign before it even started due to COVID concerns.

He resigned at the end of the 2020 season and now the Apache Junction native is returning close to his roots, taking over for Jeremy Hathcock at Desert Ridge in east Mesa.

“I am extremely excited,” Lopez said to the “Zone Read.” “These young men are hungry and have great motivation to be successful. It is good to be closer to home.”

The Jaguars, who missed the playoffs last year for the first time in 15 years, lose mainstays like quarterback Austin Kolb and massive NAU signee defensive tackle Dante Smith but there are a handful of returning contributors like 6-foot-4, 200-pound wide receiver/defensive end Lance Holtzclaw whose recruitment has recently exploded, wide receiver Jacob Condie, and defensive back Roman Mangini.

Lopez has also assembled an impressive staff in hopes of fast-tracking the Jags back to 6A contention.

“Blessed to reunite with some coaches that are familiar with success,” he noted. “Our coaching staff is elite and are beyond ecstatic to make an impact here in the Desert Ridge community.” 

Scholar Baller

Former Williams Field High wide receiver/safety/kick returner “athlete” Noa Pola-Gates had his football future in the palm of his hand.

A 2019 four-star recruit, Pola-Gates had offers from Alabama, Arizona State, Nebraska, Oregon, Penn State, Texas, Washington and a handful of others.

However, after commiting to the Cornhuskers, he and his tight-knit Gilbert family had to sweat out his academics.

It came right down-t0-the-wire.

Pola-Gates qualified…barely.

Fast forward two years and not only has Pola-Gates grown physically, he’s matured mentally. School has become just as much of a priority as football for the redshirt freshman safety.

Here’s the payoff.

“My priorities have changed,” Pola-Gates said to the “Zone Read.” “I’m using my energy in the right areas and it’s time management, honestly. That’s helped me a lot.”

Pola-Gates finished the fall semester with a 3.33 grade point average and his cumlative GPA in Lincoln is currently 3.235. 

He has become a success story for other “fringe” qualifiers at the high school level and is happy to offer simple, yet wise advice from a first-person perspective.

If anyone understands and can relate, it’s Pola-Gates.

“I would say, look for a good support system,” he explained. “I had Coach [Kelvin] Hunt, Coach [Steve] Campbell [at Williams Field]. I had my mom. I had a whole bunch of people in my corner. Don’t let all the outside noise get into your head.”

Great advice for everyone, not just aspiring student-athletes.