With Keith Hovis and Michael Blair taking over head coaching duties for Northland Prep Academy this past fall season, the two fathers had the chance to win a state title as families.
The co-head coaches and their daughters -- senior Brianna Hovis, junior Emma Blair and freshmen Kiarra Hovis and Mia Blair -- ended up with the best season in Spartans history at 21-0, capped off with a 3-1 victory against Chino Valley in the 2A Conference state championship match.
“I think that every season since Brianna was a freshman and with that freshman group, we knew that we had a lot of talent,” said Keith Hovis, with Northland Prep’s senior class falling 5-0 in the state final as freshmen. “It was a big deal to finish out strong this year for her, and I think for us, all being together and Brianna to get to play with Kiarra on the same team. So it’s a huge win for that, and 21-0, I don’t know what you say to that. It's pretty incredible.”
While the upperclassmen had plenty of past success, reaching the state tournament in every year of their varsity careers, the influx of a talented freshmen class pushed the Spartans over the top.
Freshman Ellie Karren won conference and region offensive player of the year, Mia Blair won the conference and region’s player of the year award and both, as well as Kiarra Hovis, finished inside the state’s top seven in points, goals and assists.
“I think there was a certain point at the Show Low tournament, about a quarter of the way through the season, where the seniors and captains said, 'These freshmen are pretty good, why don't we come alongside them and work together,'” Michael Blair said, with the upperclassmen unsure of how to handle the team’s youth early on. “I think they really led maturity-wise and led the freshmen. And the freshmen definitely didn't play like freshmen, especially in the final.”
Karren scored all three goals in the state final, with Mia Blair adding an assist, Kiarra Hovis tallying a pair of steals while putting four of her team-leading six shots on goal and fellow freshman Payten Schmidt making seven saves during her 70 minutes in goal.
THE NEW STAFF
Taking over for Terry Fix after multiple years together as assistant coaches, Michael Blair and Keith Hovis balanced each other as they split the top job.
“I think it was nice that they were our two head coaches. They work together really well and they play the same kind of soccer, so I feel like there were less arguments on how to coach us,” said Brianna Hovis. “It worked perfectly that my dad was with the defenders and Michael was with the offenders, it just kind of fit together better.”
Already working regular jobs, sharing the responsibilities of running the program, Michael Blair and Keith Hovis found it easy to work side by side after four years as being assistants at the school.
“It just worked out well between us that we could work well together,” Keith Hovis said. “We also coach together in the offseason with some club teams and it’s always worked out well. We kind of balance each other out, it was a good fit.”
Emma Blair praised her dad’s time commitment to her, her sister and the rest of the team, saying it blew her mind that he took time out of his work schedule to spend hours each day with a bunch of teenage girls.
With the two groups -- the older girls playing for Keith recently and the younger girls playing for Michael -- Mia Blair said the group shared the family feeling of the two pairs of sisters while coming together.
“We have already sort of had the family bond, just the coaches and the players. Combining it together, it just kind of clicked,” said Mia Blair.
Of the two families, only Brianna Hovis will be left out of the pursuit of a repeat in 2018.
“Going into this season I didn’t really think much about winning state as a group of people or families,” said Brianna Hovis. “But I don’t know, now thinking about it, this was our one chance. It means a lot that we all did it together, we all worked together and now we all share this memory.”
After never playing alongside each other due to their age gap, the two sisters said it took a couple days for the reality of the state title to set in.
“I’m sort of speechless with it because it's really unreal, it’s the one year I did get to play with her,” said Kiarra Hovis. “It was a lot of fun that we got to play with each other this one year.”
Excited for the future, Kiarra Hovis said she felt the season went by quickly and that she is looking forward to continuing to develop alongside her teammates under their two head coaches. Unfortunately, it will have to be done without her older sister.
“I’m kind of sad because it feels like now was the start. I know our program started a long time ago, but this year was the turning point,” Brianna Hovis said. “I’m sad that I don’t get to play on the team but I definitely want to come back and watch them as they progress.”
One of the team’s captains with Brianna Hovis, Emma Blair admitted she was among the upperclassmen who needed to accept the talent of the younger players on the roster.
“We had the moments where I was like, ‘Why can my little sister beat me at everything?’” said Emma Blair. “For me, when Brianna, the senior, was able to step back and let her little sister do something, I knew that hey, I’m not even a senior, I’m a junior, I need to be able to humble myself to let Mia do her thing. That was really remarkable and a teachable moment for me watching the seniors, and I still learn from them every day even though the season is over.”
The connection between the two sisters made the state title a special moment, one their father never experienced while in high school. Michael Blair said he only ended up with two state runner-ups while in high school, and for his daughters who are best friends to come away with a title and each have a major contribution was a moment they will never forget.
Emma Blair said after years of being on the losing end of big moments, including back to her time in Anthem before her family moved to Flagstaff, finally achieving the highest level of success with her sister had a special meaning behind it.
“The thing that matters most to me is how Mia was such a factor in it; she wasn't just sitting on the bench as a freshman. She told me, ‘Emma, we won that for you,’ and I said that meant a lot to me. Siblings have good relationships, but it is something more when your little sister says I won that for you, I look up to you. That just meant the world to me.”
While she admitted she didn’t see the success coming years ago before the group all hit high school, playfully calling the group of freshmen “pipsqueaks,” Emma Blair was confident the school would finally walk away with a state title this season.
“I told Mia we are going to win state and she said, 'Don't get cocky,' and I said, 'I’m not cocky, I’m confident,'” said Emma Blair. “Even the night before, one of my dad's coach friends came over and he gave us this whole lecture on how to win and he said none of you can guarantee you are going to win tomorrow. I raised my hand and said I can guarantee we are going to win.”
Adding she was a bit nervous when Northland Prep and Chino Valley were tied at 1-1 late in the second half, Emma Blair said she felt the team would be able to win not just based on the talent of the freshman class, but the poise with how the senior class carries itself as the freshmen dominated on the field.
Similarly, her father Michael said on some level he expected the title to be a possibility, but to follow through and make it a reality was another thing. However, the perfect record and 132-10 goal differential surpassed any expectations the coaches could have had.
With Emma Blair remembering Kiarra Hovis as a little aggressive hothead running through people, her sister Mia as a little girl trying to use her footwork but ending up on the ground and Ellie Karren for her huge goggles, it was hard for her to imagine the title had become a reality.
The celebration carries over from the field to the team’s end of the year banquet, where Mia Blair said the whole team’s emotions swayed back and forth.
“It was such a team thing, and it was so fun because we bonded so well throughout the season and that just helped make everything better,” said Mia Blair. “And after that with the team banquet, it was so much fun we were just laughing and crying and then laughing the next second again.”