In February 2009, Max Ragsdale was in Las Vegas — the city of lights, gambling and entertainment — and all he wanted to do was talk football.
The former Apache Junction coach took over at Campo Verde in 2009, and for the last 2 1/2 years he has worked to build the program from the foundation on up.
The first thing he did was contact coaches who had gone through the same experience, like Tim McBurney at Basha and Steve Campbell at Williams Field.
When he ran into Preston Jones — the former Highland coach who left to start the Perry program — at a coaching clinic in Vegas, he wanted to pick his brain, too.
“This is how screwed up me and Preston are,” Ragsdale said. “We’re sitting in Vegas. In Vegas. We could be doing anything, and we’re sitting there for two hours talking about a new school start-up.”
From the day he took over, Ragsdale’s expectations have been high, and with good reason. Just take a look at some of the success new schools have had recently.
Hamilton may be the finest example, as the Huskies made the title game in their fourth year of existence and have won six state championships in the school’s 13-year history.
Basha opened in 2002, and while it hasn’t made a championship game, it became an upper-echelon program quickly.
Williams Field played its first full varsity schedule in 2009 and lost only one regular season game that year. The Black Hawks made the 4A Division II title game last season, losing to Thunderbird 25-22 in overtime.
Campo Verde, Poston Butte and Combs will all enter the fray next season. Instead of a methodical assimilation in becoming a competitive program, all three schools are looking to push full steam ahead.
“I like where we are as a new school coming in,” Poston Butte coach Mike De La Torre said. “We’re out here (in summer passing leagues against 5A competition) and we’re not embarrassing ourselves. We’ve had some success at every level of our program — the freshmen have been winning, our J.V. has been winning, last year on our (varsity) independent schedule we did well — the question will be whether it equates into wins this year. We definitely have all the ingredients to it, but there are definitely a lot of small things that need to go your way.”
It’s unclear whether it will hold true this time around, but independent schedule success a couple years ago for Williams Field and Liberty was parlayed into immediate traction against a full varsity schedule.
The Black Hawks defeated Liberty in the independent league championship game in 2008 and haven’t slowed down since. Liberty also has done well, winning 20 of its 23 games in two years of varsity play.
Ragsdale had Campbell talk to his team before the Coyotes played in the independent league championship last year, and while they lost by six points to Vista Grande, the message was clear.
“I just wanted him to impart some knowledge on us about how important it is to set that foundation,” Ragsdale said.
Combs offensive lineman Brandon Sanchez watched how quickly Williams Field found success. He said his team has used it as motivation, because while he is apart of the school’s first graduating class, Sanchez feels like the Coyotes can shorten the learning curve if hard work is put in.
“Seeing (Williams Field’s accomplishments), it pushes us,” he said. “It makes us want to become better athletes, it pushes us more in the weight room and on the field. It makes us want to be where they’re at.”
Don’t be stunned if some of the new teams are competitive out of the gate.
Campo Verde has nice amenities, including a state-of-the-art synthetic playing surface, that can draw in athletes. Poston Butte has the highest enrollment of any team in Division III.
A one-loss regular season like Williams Field’s first year may be too much to ask with challenging schedules for each team, but it no longer takes new schools a couple years to gain their footing.
“We’re definitely going to have our fair share of competition,” De La Torre said, “but I like our kids and they’re working hard. They look the part and they’re doing the right things. When you don’t have a bunch of seniors, you don’t know until they line up to play.”