An experienced and accomplished high school football coach appears to have fallen into the hands of the Willcox Cowboy program.
Eric Hjalmarson, 42, left a successful two-year stint at Safford’s 3A program to take on the challenge of bringing Willcox into a more competitive level against its 2A opponents this fall season.
“I resigned from Safford due to personal issues and chose Willcox due to its proximity,” Hjalmarson said, who added he is also happy to keep his house in Safford. “There’s also a good work ethic and pride in their program in Willcox.”
He will follow a three-year stint by Alonzo Highsmith, who had an overall winning record with a 7-3 season in the middle year, bookended by a pair of 5-5 showings.
“It was my first coaching opportunity,” Highsmith told the Herald/Review. “I feel like it was the best place I could start because I felt I had to be on top of my game at all times. It wasn’t an easy go of it.”
Highsmith moved on this year for an opportunity to be an assistant under a coach he played for at Phoenix College. He’ll coordinate the defense under Mark Mejia at North High School in Phoenix.
Hjalmarson, originally from Flagstaff, cut his teeth as an assistant coach in the Phoenix area, assisting George De La Torre at stops in San Tan Foothills, Dobson and Florence High Schools.
He also got his start by assisting the coach he played for, Paul Moro, at Blue Ridge High. He’s been in the coaching ranks for 20 years, including a two-year head-coaching position at Globe. He started out 0-3 at Safford before winning 14 of his next 17 games, and leading them to their first region title in 19 years last seasojnh, he said.
Hjalmarson played for three high school state champs for Blue Ridge while living as a youngster in Pinetop.
The new Willcox coach was also a starter in college at Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, and was named as team captain and an All-Region standout as free safety on defense during his time there. He chose to join some former Blue Ridge teammates and walk-on to Dick Tomey’s University of Arizona football teams for his final two years, but spent most of his time on the bench while learning more about the game.
“I’m hard working. I understand the game very well,” Hjalmarson said. “I’m great with kids. I had a great high school coach and good college experience.”
Former Willcox High School Athletic Director Tammy Hall, now the principal, helped lure Hjalmarson to Willcox by promising a teaching position he relished.
“It’s a great opportunity because I’ll be the weight and PE teacher,” said the former special-ed teacher for Safford.
“Weight room strength and conditioning experience will be important” for the Willcox football players, he said.
“You have to be a good recruiter of your local kids, too.”
He’s already off to an impressive start, drawing nearly 40 students to his pre-season conditioning program that started last week at Cowboy stadium, as well as drawing former head coach Jack Kortsen and two experienced Willcox coaching assistants from last year, Mike Rand and RK Rockhill, to join his staff.
“I feel like they found a good coach,” Highsmith noted. “Hopefully the kids learned enough from me that they can apply it for the new coach and go further than what I did.”
What can the team and parents look forward to this season?
“I’m fair. That’s easier as a new coach,” Hjalmarson said. “I think with persistence and hard work, and with that, some patience, we can win in Willcox.”