Darrell Stangle ignored the whispers from fellow athletic directors and trusted his instincts.
He watched the way Jeremy Hathcock turned a moribund Show Low football program into a power, winning a state championship in 2003.
Other schools dismissed Hathcock’s resume because he did it at the 3A level, but Desert Ridge needed an infusion of life in 2006 after finishing 3-18 the previous two seasons, and Stangle took a chance.
“I targeted him, and I took a little grief,” he said. “People questioned me on wanting to hire a small-school guy.”
Stangle had a vision, and he convinced Hathcock that Desert Ridge was a diamond in the rough. With the right coach in place, the outer layer of coal could be removed to produce a sparkle.
In the beginning, Stangle was half-athletic director, half-therapist.
“That first year, I looked at our freshman class and said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to leave,’” Hathcock said. “Nobody wanted to come here. They were all at Highland, at Apache Junction. Skyline kids stayed there. Nobody worth anything came here our first year.
“I would be in my athletic director’s office once a week, like he was my psychologist, like, ‘Where am I? What am I doing?’”
Stangle took a chance by hiring Hathcock from the small-school level. Now it was Hathcock’s turn to reward that faith.
“There were a couple of times he told me that I lied to him,” Stangle said. “I had the luxury of seeing the forest from the trees. I sold him on the vision and dream that we were going to be a power.”
Early on, the problems with the Jaguars were numerous. The school had no tradition. The players were undisciplined. Few worked hard in the weight room.
Despite the lack of depth and talent, Hathcock somehow coaxed four wins out of that first-year group. His innovative offensive mind was already on display, as the Jaguars went from averaging 10 points per game the previous two years to 26.9 in his first season.
The ascension remained steady, as Desert Ridge won seven and eight games the next two years and grew a reputation as one of the most dynamic offenses in the state.
A drop to 6-5 in 2009 brought some questions as to whether this high-flying act was more style than substance, but Hathcock could see the top-to-bottom talent improvement in his program, and knew it was only a matter of time until the Jaguars became contenders.
It happened last season, as the team shook off a 2-3 start and an injury to starting quarterback Parker Rasmussen to navigate its way to the 5A Division I championship game, where it lost to juggernaut Hamilton, 21-13.
“Our goal was to win a state championship in five years,” Hathcock said. “We just missed it.”
The stars of that team — running back Joey Counts and quarterback Jordan Becerra — are back now, as is Rasmussen. Through three games this season, the Jaguars have outscored their opponents 134-13 and are ranked No. 2 in Division I.
The offensive wizardry has been matched with some quality performances from the defense, which has yet to allow more than seven points to an opponent this season. It’s a facet that was missing in past years, but with a stable of veteran coaches, the Jaguars have become more balanced.
The program will reach its apex with a matchup Friday against top-ranked Hamilton, where many are hoping — and others expecting — that the Jaguars have what it takes to knock off the Huskies.
“I have people hitting me up on Facebook, people I don’t even know,” Becerra said. “People actually believe in us this year, not like last year.”
Sean Harris was an assistant coach at Desert Ridge in the two years prior to Hathcock’s arrival. Even while Hathcock worried about the viability of making Desert Ridge competitive early on, Harris could see an immediate change.
In Harris’ first year on staff in 2004, only eight kids lasted through the first week of spring ball. This year there were more than 80.
“Before he got here, people in the program, people outside the program, didn’t think we could win,” Harris said. “It took a couple years for them to buy into what he was doing, but we slowly changed the atmosphere.”
Stangle can’t help but enjoy the moment.
He notes that the same athletic directors who questioned his hire of Hathcock are already onto their second or third coaches in the same time span, while his football program has gone from laughingstock to contender.
“We were more than bad,” Stangle said. “We couldn’t get out of our own way. It was somewhat humiliating. From that to where we are now — people know who Desert Ridge is now. How could I not enjoy that?”
Needless to say, Stangle no longer doubles as Hathcock’s therapist. Instead, he’s looking more like a soothsayer.
“Before, we used to sell (the vision), but the players didn’t believe it,” Hathcock said. “Now, they’re saying, ‘Wow, I’m Desert Ridge. I can walk around and be (looked at) as something special.’”