When Whitney Warmus was interviewing for an open teaching position at Mountain Ridge High School in Glendale, Arizona, a question toward the end of the meeting got the ball rolling on a magical journey that led a yet-to-be-started team to a runner-up finish in the Arizona Interscholastic Association’s Class 6A flag football tournament.
“I had an interview at this one school where a position opened up, and during my interview, one of the last questions they had was, ‘What’s one thing that you want to do at this school that you might not see? What’s something you’d want to get involved in?’” Warmus, a 2006 graduate of Blacklick Valley, recalled. “I told them, ‘I know flag football is growing. I’d love to see the sport at this school.’ As soon as I said that, they said, ‘Actually, our district just approved it. We are having flag football next year.’ The same day they offered me the job and asked if I wanted to interview for that position next.”
Warmus’ path to Arizona, came with a nudge from the Rev. Geno Bartoletti of the First Baptist Church in Nanty Glo. Warmus noted that Bartoletti has been a longtime cornerman for students and athletes at Blacklick Valley, past and present.
“When I first moved to Arizona, I was a little hesitant,” Warmus said, “but he gave me the direction of, ‘Hey, you have people out there waiting for you. God has a plan for you. It’ll fall into place.’”
Warmus, in her first year as the Mountain Lions’ coach and as a health/physical education teacher at Mountain Ridge, guided the upstart program to the inaugural AIA title game, where it fell 10-7 to Mountain View earlier this month.
That defeat wrapped up an 11-6 campaign, while halting a nine-game winning streak that started after a blowout loss to Xavier College Prep on Sept. 12.
“We played at Xavier and got our butts kicked,” Warmus said. “It was one of those, ‘We never want to have that feeling again,’ games. We had two more games against teams that were undefeated. We lost to (Highland) 19-9 and then 17-7 to Red Mountain. It was the last game that we lost (before the postseason). We actually met up with Red Mountain in the semifinals and beat them 7-0. I think it was after that (first meeting) that I was like, ‘We want to see Red Mountain again.’ I never thought we’d actually see them again.”
Piling up the victories after a 2-5 start was all part of the fun for Mountain Ridge, a high school that boasts an estimated enrollment of 2,700 students. While firmly in the state’s 6A classification, Warmus pointed out that the Mountain Lions were competing against schools with enrollments exceeding 4,000 students. She also noted that roughly 65 schools competed in varsity flag football in either 4A or 6A.
“It was so exciting to keep stacking wins,” senior Ellie Cardiff said. “We were finally peaking at the right time of the season, and each of us really figured out how to do our part and work together.”
‘We took that lesson and learned’: Getting the coaching job was one thing for Warmus, who had coached girls basketball and softball Blacklick Valley before moving to Arizona. Getting the fledgling program up to speed with the rapidly growing game was a difficult task, but one that Warmus embraced.
Even if there were some lumps involved during the process of teaching a brand-new game to the 25 student-athletes on the roster.
“Our scrimmage was literally getting completely crushed,” Warmus said, “but I think it was one of the best things that happened to us because we took that lesson and learned.”
Warmus, an experienced flag-football player, was aware of the odds facing her team and how popular the game was becoming in the region.
“I personally played flag football in Pennsylvania for three years before moving out to Arizona,” she said. “I played out here with adults where there are so many more leagues. You’re playing year-round and youth girls are traveling to Florida, Texas, Las Vegas and California and just playing. There’s a lot more girls (on club teams) out here starting to play.
“My team, none of them had club experience. We’d go up against the East Valley (Phoenix metropolitan area), to where they played a practice season – two seasons, actually, fall and spring. We had to go up against all of those teams that knew how to play, or at least played in some shape or form and knew the rules.”
Warmus noted that her team was blessed with skill and speed, but was lacking in fundamental knowledge of the game at first. She never dipped her expectations for the team, however.
“Since the beginning Coach Warmus threw us right into the sport and had high standards for us,” Cardiff said. “This really paid off because although it was a little frustrating to understand the sport at first, it was so rewarding once we started to gain the right skills. After truly getting to know her, the team realized how much of an amazing coach she is.”
Jade Fudurich – another captain on the team – noted that Warmus was willing to put in the work with the team as they learned the game.
“I feel like I had an upper-hand because I did the summer camp with Coach Warmus,” Fudurich said. “She would instruct me in what I needed to do and I would catch on right away. She was very patient with us learning something new. I think we all caught along to her tactics very easily.”
Warmus’ patience was also evident in how team mottos developed during the season.
“‘Goldfish’ and ‘One play at a time” were our mottos,” senior co-captain Madison Green said. “‘Goldfish’ because of the myth that they have a memory of 10 seconds. Similarly after a bad play we’d say, ‘Goldfish’ to show we recognize our mistake, but that it’s past, not to be dwelled on. Our second motto builds on the first. We would take the game ‘one play at a time,’ focusing on the now rather than in the past, but also it meant to not worry about future possibilities but stay locked in on the controllable present.”
Bonus notoriety: As the Mountain Lions continued to progress through the AIA tournament, recognition followed.
Coming from schools that are dwarfed by Mountain Ridge’s enrollment, it also led to moments where co-workers who Warmus hadn’t met yet were offering congratulations and well-wishes.
“When I walked in (Blacklick Valley or Conemaugh Valley), everyone knows me,” Warmus said. “This is my first year at (Mountain Ridge High School), because I used to teach at a middle school, but everyone knows who I am because of the publicity that our flag football team got.”
Warmus continued with a giggle: “There are staff members at the school that I have no clue who they are that walk by and they’ll know who I am because of the sport.”
The program’s success, in the first season that the AIA fully sanctioned the sport, has also generated interest for the future, including some who may not have embraced the idea of practicing before sunrise at the start of the season.
“(There were some students who) didn’t want to do the 5 a.m. practice the first week of school because it’s 115 degrees during the day, so we had to go in the morning when it’s like 90,” Warmus said. “There’s a lot of athletes that are starting to be like, ‘Oh wow, this is for real’ or, ‘Oh wow, they’re actually good. This is something that I want to be a part of.’ Instead of having tryouts to where I’m barely cutting people, I’m going to have to make cuts next year unless I can get a (junior varsity) squad.”
Those who battled through the first season are proud of the foundation built at Mountain Ridge.
“I like that we were able to come out first year and be successful as ever,” Fudurich said. “I think we set up the future years with this program successfully, and I know we will be better year after year.”
With the optimism for the future of the program showing itself, another feeling for what the Mountain Lions accomplished is also showing itself.
“The only describable feeling is pride,” Green said. “I am so proud of our team for what we have helped establish for the culture of women’s athletics, for our school, and for our program by making it to the first AIA flag football championships.”