October 9, 2004
There is nothing visibly remarkable or unique about Apache Junction’s football program.
The players and coaches look like many other schools’ players and coaches.
The facilities look like many other schools’ facilities. The fans are more or less the same as many other schools’ fans.
But there is an invisible disease that has infected the Prospectors’ highest profile sport, making success as elusive as Jacob Walz’s legendary gold mine. It’s called losing, and it has reached epidemic proportions in the shadow of the Superstition Mountains.
Since 1984, Apache Junction has not recorded a single winning season. No other school in the Tribune’s coverage area can claim such misery.
Following Friday’s 34-24 home loss to Coronado, the Prospectors fell to 0-7 this season and 0-22 in their last 22 outings. Amazingly, it’s just the second longest losing streak in school history, eclipsed by a 28-game skid from 1994 to 1997.
"I’m staying away from ropes and trees," said second-year coach Max Ragsdale, who somehow has kept his sense of humor in the face of weekly disappointment and an 0-17 record as Prospectors coach.
Ragsdale didn’t accept his current job out of naivete or desperation. He played for Apache Junction in 1988 and ’89. He offers more insight than most into Prospector football.
"To be dead honest," Ragsdale said, "there’s no tradition here."
At least not a recent tradition. Apache Junction had plenty of good teams in the 1970s and early 80s under coaches Jack Davis and Leon Trotter. The school even won a state championship in 1975 at the 3A level.
But none of the current players remember those days and few have family members who were a part of them.
The more cynical in the prep world erroneously have tried to assign blame to the local population of kids, parents, teachers and administrators, as if they’re somehow less worthy or capable than the rest of the East Valley’s population.
But the reasons for Apache Junction’s struggles don’t conform to such ignorant stereotypes. The Prospectors’ plight is steeped in subtlety.
"The No. 1 reason is we just don’t know how to win," said Chuck Baker, who has covered the team for the Apache Junction News for the past seven years. "A lot of times we fall behind right away, and you can almost see it in their eyes like, ‘Here we go again.’
"I’ve even heard students say, ‘We’re Apache Junction. We’re not supposed to win.’ How do you get out of that attitude?"
Countless coaches have asked the same question, but none have found the answer. Many have given up. From 1992 to 1997 Apache Junction, had five different coaches and five different systems for the players to absorb.
"That always makes it hard," said Gilbert district athletic director Mark Cisterna, who spent 18 years in the AJ district, the last 10 as athletic director. "But I know they’re doing the right things out there to win, and they’ve got great support from the administration. My heart bleeds for them because I really want to see them be successful."
Apache Junction’s tax base is one of the lowest in the East Valley, and the school district receives only $6.75 on every $100 of assessed property tax, compared with $7.88 in Gilbert and $9.10 in Queen Creek. But district spokesperson Carol Shepherd said funding hasn’t been a problem for the football program at Apache Junction. Ragsdale said the administration just provided the football team with 50 new helmets.
"It’s not like we’re practicing without pads out here," he said.
Apache Junction’s 1,542 students rank them high in the bottom third of 4A enrollment figures, but even those numbers are deceiving because they generally fall significantly during the year. Moreover, the football program’s numbers had not been good before Ragsdale managed to coax 38 juniors and seniors out, allowing him to keep all of his sophomores on a jayvee team — a real rarity at Apache Junction.
Ragsdale said the players’ commitment simply wasn’t there under past coaches. He’s not the first new coach to lodge that complaint or promise a brighter future, but Ragsdale’s drive and his ties to the community may help in building the many layers of a program’s foundation required to achieve and sustain success.
The numbers in the town’s Lost Dutchman Youth Football Program have dropped by nearly 50 percent over the past few years, so Ragsdale is working feverishly to foster relationships with the that program and increase participation.
From his players, he has demanded adherence to a challenging weight training program and implemented a study hall to keep them on task. He also has been a tireless recruiter on campus, focusing on the wrestling mats because of the strength, work ethic and commitment level required in the sport.
"We keep doing the right things week after week," junior quarterback Chris Rodriguez said. "We haven’t been able to get enough points yet, but we still believe."
The fruits of that faith have yet to ripen. That was apparent Friday night when Coronado rallied for three second-half touchdowns to erase a momentary AJ lead.
Still, there are reasons for hope. Realignment and reconfiguration of the 4A Conference may put Apache Junction in a region with schools closer to its size — and away from Chaparral and Saguaro.
The town also is looking forward to the development of a parcel of land to the south that recently shed its flood plain status. While every other East Valley city has experienced huge recent growth, Apache Junction has remained largely stagnant. The new development could add as many as 5,000 homes and an attractive glut of middle-class student-athletes.
"Can it change? Heck yeah, it can change. It’s just going to take a special group of kids," Ragsdale said. "Until they actually see it happen, until they taste success and see that coach Ragsdale is not just full of hot air, it’s tough for kids to get over that hump.
"But I’m not going anywhere. They’ll have to drag me out, kicking and screaming, because I have my dream job. I’m not giving up on this program or this school."
Apache Junction owns the longest streak without a winning season of any school in the Tribune’s coverage area. The football team’s last winning campaign came in 1984.
No other team in the Tribune’s coverage area with at least six years of varsity play has failed to record at least one winning season over that span.