Jacobs leading a Rocket resurgence for Moon Valley football

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By Brad Denny By Brad Denny
By Brad Denny By Brad Denny
By Brad Denny By Brad Denny
By Brad Denny By Brad Denny
By Brad Denny By Brad Denny

PHOENIX -- The Rockets have been waiting a long time for this. 

After winning the 4A state championship in 2004, Moon Valley fell off the map, winning just four games over the following two seasons. A coaching change improved the program slightly, but the Rockets failed to post a winning season over the ensuing five years.

Back to the drawing board. Again.

Another coaching change was made following the 2011 season, with Moon Valley bringing in Sam Jacobs, then Apollo's defensive coordinator, to head the program. While many saw a program mirred in mediocrity, he saw a school brimming with raw potential. 

"Moon Valley has always had a tradition on athletes," Jacobs said. "When you have athletes, if you can get them to buy into your system, it's a lot easier to make things happen when you have tools to work with. They definitely have always had tools."

After Jacobs arrived on campus, he saw firsthand the atrophy that had plagued the program from season after season of losing. The Rockets had to be rebuilt, both physically and mentally.

"When I took over, they were definitely struggling for numbers," said Jacobs. "One of my first projects when I got on campus was to get them to be excited to play football again. Something had happened in the meantime from 2004 to the time I took over when football stopped being fun. There weren't a lot of participants, so I had to get the school excited to play football again."

Jacobs knew that the first year would be tough, and it followed that script, perhaps too well. That season, Moon Valley limped to a 1-9 record, but Jacobs and his staff never lost sight of the bigger picture.

"We worked really hard to keep the young kids interested," Jacobs said of the 2012 season. "We didn't by any means start out the season trying to focus only on the young kids, but that year we only had six or seven seniors. We did our best to make sure that the young kids were having a good time, even though we were losing, and trying to coach them up the best we could so they'd buy into the system."

One of the major hurdles that had to be cleared before the rebuilding could begin in earnest was refocusing the priorities of his players. After seven straight losing seasons, the Rockets were not so much a team as just a collection of players.

"It was a lot of trying to get the kids to play for each other," said Jacobs of his early challenges. "There seemed to be a little bit of entitlement when I first got there, but we had to break them from that and get them to play for each other. When we talk about the system, that's it. How do you get these 15, 16, 17, 18-year old kids to play for the guy next to them instead of for themselves."

Slowly but surely, Jacobs and the Rockets made progress.

In his second season, Moon Valley started off 3-2 before finishing with a 4-6 record. Most critically, a core group of players made large strides, both on and off the field, which set the table for this year.

The Rockets have started the 2014 season 7-0. They opened the the year with their first victory over rival Greenway since 2007, and now find themselves tied atop the Division III Section VI standings. While the turnaround has come as a shock to many, don't count Jacobs among that group.

"We knew things were going to line up well (this season)," said Jacobs. "We have a great senior class with some pretty special athletes, as well as a pretty strong junior class. Put that together with where we were in the section and the division and we had an idea that we could make a good run. To say it's a surprise...not really. We knew what we had coming back. The surprise will be how well we can push through in the playoffs. That will show how far we really are."

Once an area of great concern, the team's mental approach and on-field leadership has become one of the defining strength's of the 2014 Rockets. 

"There is some great senior leadership," said Jacobs. "That was tested last week against Thunderbird when we started off flat, down 17-0 in the third quarter, and these guys battle back. They settled down and took charge. That's had a big impact on where we are at right now."

Of course, a program resurgence is always made easier when a team has a dynamic playmaker at quarterback. For the Rockets, Shannon Burton is that player. After enduring some struggles over his first two seasons, the senior has elevated his play in a big way in 2014. He has thrown for 1,205 yards and 13 touchdowns and leads the team with 807 yards rushing and 15 touchdowns. Also seeing time on defense in the secondary, Burton has intercepted three passes.

"He's as big a part as anybody. We have this group of seniors, and he is one special one in that group," Jacobs said. "He leads by example. He leads with his energy. He leads with how hard he plays. Shannon is the ultimate competitor, and that what sets him apart from most other people that he plays against."

With Burton leading the Rockets down the field, the Moon Valley defense has made a habit of making the big play. Up front, William Jensen and Davion Grey are tied for the section lead with seven sacks each, and the team has forced 17 turnovers in the first seven games of the year.

"It's been a huge part. We have success when that side of the ball plays well," said Jacobs of his defense. "We're a big play defense. We have a very aggressive style. We have good athletes on all levels. We're very athletic up front. We're not that big, but because we are so athletic, that helps us compete with the bigger boys."

No longer just aiming for a winning record, Moon Valley finds themselves firmly chasing a section title and more.

This Friday, they face their biggest test so far this season when they travel to section rival Alhambra, in what will be a battle of 7-0 teams. Beating the Lions and staying undefeated will be no easy task.

"Alhambra has done a great job of putting a system together that works for their size," Jacobs said. "They don't have tons of size, but they have decent athletes and they're all scrappy. The single wing, old style running game is very scrappy. It causes you to be sound defensively, because if you are not sound, then they will expose you and bust up the big plays."

Win or lose on Friday, the football team has already reinvigorated a school hungry for winning football. Jacobs knows that having a good football team can have an uplifting impact all across campus, and it's a challenge that he and the team embrace.

"We as a football program know that a lot of energy and excitement that the school has is going to begin with us," said Jacobs. "If you have a good football season, then basketball, baseball, volleyball, and all those other sports have more excitement. It's nice to set the tone."

After waiting nearly a decade to have a quality football program again, Moon Valley is eager to position themselves as perennial contenders in the northwest Valley. Along with the success the varsity squad has had so far, the Rocket freshman and junior varsity teams have combined for just a single loss.

With the promise of continued talent, a new winning standard, and Jacobs at the helm, the future for Rocket football seems bright.

"There is talent in the pipeline, and it's our goal to keep this train rolling."