SCOTTSDALE — As the only Arizona native on Phoenix Rising FC, it’s no surprise that Blair Gavin feels a desire to help develop the Valley’s next generation of soccer talent.
After all, he sees a lot of himself in them.
“It’s good to not only play, but also coach and help mentor kids going through the process of growing up,” Gavin said. “For me, growing up in the area, I’ve always had good coaches and I wanted to continue that path going forward.”
The midfielder, 28, began his soccer education at an early age, following in his brother’s footsteps all the way to Horizon High School and Sereno Soccer Club, where he won four straight Arizona state cups.
After leaving the Valley to train at the prestigious IMG Soccer Academy in Florida, Gavin played collegiately at Akron and professionally with stints in Major League Soccer before returning home in 2016 when signed with what was then Arizona United.
Following his first campaign with the club, Gavin received a call from Grand Canyon University women’s soccer coach Derek Leader, who had served as the assistant director of the IMG Academy when Gavin was there as a teenager. Leader knew Gavin was working on his coaching licenses and offered him a job as a volunteer assistant. Gavin accepted.
“I had wanted to get into coaching for some time,” Gavin said. “I thought it would be a good opportunity to get some experience coaching and coaching at a good level.”
Leader thought Gavin, even in a part-time role, would be a great addition to his staff because of the leadership qualities he had seen on display back at IMG.
“From early on, Blair was always a player that got things done on the field,” Leader said. “He kind of led by example. He wasn’t the loudest and most vocal, but when he had something to say everybody listened.”
GCU defensive midfielder Madison Wisely felt Gavin brought a positive energy to the team as well as his traditional workmanlike approach.
“When you step on the field and you step across the line, it’s business,” Wisely said. “It’s not a get-together. It’s not a social event.”
Wisely credited Gavin with significant impact on her skill development during her freshman season. She specifically noted his defensive training sessions that focused on anticipating the play, intercepting passes and attacking the ball in the air.
“Every single drill that we did, he was able to take what we did and it was very applicable in a game,” Wisely said. “I definitely saw a difference from training with him and then playing on the field.”
Qualities like those are why Scottsdale-based travel team Phoenix Rush and its coaching director Chris Sagar came calling around the same time last year.
The Rush already had some current Rising players coaching youth teams, including goalkeeper Carl Woszczynski, but were looking to expand when they recruited Gavin to coach the club’s Nero 03 girls team.
Last season, Gavin led practice three nights a week and coached approximately 24-30 league and tournament games from September to March.
Sagar believes that having local role models like Blair and Woszczynski as coaches at the club helps its young players develop not just technically, but mentally as well, since they will start watching games more often.
“You can encourage them to do that on TV and all that stuff,” Sagar said. “But when you have professional players and a professional league right in your backyard, it’s even easier to get the kids excited about going to watch Coach Blair play.”
“To have a coach that’s not only just telling you what to do but can show you what to do and you can see him actually go do it on the weekend. I think it’s a great thing for kids.”
Rising interim coach Rick Schantz echoed Sagar’s thoughts and praised Gavin’s ability to connect on a personal level with children in the community.
“Kids want to come out and see people that not only that they’re fans of, but are fans of them,” Schantz said. “That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about Blair is the way I see him coaching and interacting with kids and how he treats people. It’s easy to want to support him.”
Schantz believes that professional soccer in the United States has done a great job growing through a grassroots approach and is hoping the Rising can continue to expand the game in the Valley.
“It starts with our players,” Schantz said. “And Blair’s out there all the time, not just coaching, but whenever he sees kids and they ask him about Rising, he’s always willing to talk.”
“I wish I had something like this growing up,” Gavin said. “So I can only imagine that the younger kids are enjoying it.”
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