As much as La Salle Prep football has meant to Aaron Hazel – who played quarterback for the Falcons and spent the last seven seasons as their head coach – a different kind of challenge intrigued him.
The chance to be the first coach at Nelson, the new Happy Valley high school in the North Clackamas School District, held strong appeal. And after talking with John Mannion, who started the Mountainside program in 2017, he knew he had to go for it.
“John said his dad reached out to him and said, 'How many people get the chance to start a program from the beginning?'” Hazel said. “I talk to my kids about having a passion for growth. I couldn't look my daughters in the eye and I couldn't preach that if I'm not willing to do that myself.”
Nelson announced this week the hiring of Hazel, who compiled a 27-35 record at 5A La Salle Prep after nine years of assisting at Skyview of Vancouver. Hazel had the difficult task of informing his staff and players at La Salle Prep.
“I kind of ripped off the Band-Aid. It was tough,” said Hazel, a 1999 La Salle graduate. “It was just something I couldn't turn away. That's what I told the kids at La Salle, it's kind of that hill in front of me, and I just had to go climb it. … It was not an easy decision, but it's something exciting and fun.”
Nelson athletic director Vicki Nelms said the administration believes Hazel's approach to coaching aligned with the school's philosophy.
“It wasn't based off any win-loss records, it was based on the relationship pieces with kids and his overall program, and that strong culture that we really felt strong about when we're wanting to have our new program take off,” Nelms said. “I think a lot of times when you have all that, the wins come with that.”
Hazel, who toured the Nelson facility Wednesday, needs to get to work quickly in building a coaching staff. The Hawks are scheduled to begin summer workouts June 18 as they prepare to debut with a 6A varsity schedule this fall.
“We're getting after it, jumping in the deep end,” Hazel said. “It'll be fun. Winning the moment is going to be a big thing for us. Not trying to get too far ahead of ourselves, just be where our feet are.”
Hazel has scheduled an online meeting with Nelson parents for next week. He also plans to meet with the other newly hired Nelson coaches from other sports soon.
“We're trying to figure out who's going to be there, who we've got,” Hazel said. “We're trying to get a pulse on what our kids can do, so we can start building a little bit of a schematic plan for what's going to be best for us.”
When Nelson opens its doors for the 2021-22 school year, it will take in about half of the freshmen, sophomores and juniors that were ticketed for Clackamas, located about four miles away. Seniors in the Nelson enrollment area were given the option to attend either school, and about 75 have chosen to go to Nelson.
By 2022-23, the district expects each school to have an enrollment between 1,400 and 1,600.
“The first year, we'll probably have around 1,200 or 1,300, but there's talk already that within five years, Nelson will outgrow the building they are in,” said Nelms, the former Clackamas athletic director. “We know our first two years are going to be a little bit rough in some sports, but with every coach we've hired, that's something we've talked about.
“It opens up other doors. Kids that were getting cut at Clackamas may not be cut anymore for a while. That was one of the biggest things was allowing more kids the opportunity to play with a high school sports team.”
A strong youth football program has been instrumental in the recent success at Clackamas, which went 62-13 with one 6A title between 2013 and 2018. How the youth program will operate with the opening of Nelson has not been determined.
Hazel said he hopes to meet with Clackamas coach James Holan in the next week to discuss the matter.
“I think at least in the first year there is probably going to be just one program,” Hazel said. “It'll give us some time to buy some new uniforms and do that stuff.”
Nelms said that Nelson has asked to join Clackamas as a member of the Mt. Hood Conference. With their proximity, Clackamas and Nelson will have a natural rivalry.
The Battle for Happy Valley?
“It's going to be all hands on deck there,” Hazel said.
Hazel lives in Gladstone with his wife Brooke and daughters Emma, 14, and Adalynn, 10. Hazel said the family is house-hunting in Happy Valley and that Emma will be a freshman at Nelson this fall.
Hazel said he not only is looking forward to sharing the Nelson experience with his daughters, but also being a part of a geographic school community, a change from La Salle Prep, a private school.
“It's going to take some time to build that with Nelson,” Hazel said. “But I miss that from my days at Skyview, where that was the thing to do on Friday night. Everybody in town was going to the game.”
Other head coaches hired at Nelson:
Cross country – Anton Clifford (Clackamas head coach 2016-20)
Boys soccer – Lisa Harings (Forest Grove JV boys coach 2018-19)
Girls soccer – Michelle McHone (Clackamas head coach 2019-20)
Volleyball – Lisa McBee (Clackamas head coach 2018-20)
Boys basketball – Alex Edwards
Girls basketball – John Schlaefli (Clackamas head coach 2002-09)
Cheer – Alma Lopez Alvarez
Dance – Debi Lazarev
Swimming – Sam Nelson
Wrestling – Jayson Schmidt (Wilson head coach 2018-19, former Clackamas assistant)
Baseball – Corey Davis (Clackamas assistant)