Head football coaches rarely if ever mention, even in jest, that they are “low on the totem pole,” compared to other members of their staff.
Sunnyside’s third-year coach Roy Lopez Jr. — twice a coach of the year selection when he resurrected Tempe Marcos de Niza’s program from 2005 to 2013 — said just that the other day after the Blue Devils practiced for their season opener against visiting Gilbert Campo Verde tonight.
This is how Lopez pointed out (literally) other members of his staff:
“Look over there … Tom Joseph won a couple of state championships at Mesa Mountain View. There’s Johnny Rodriguez, who won a couple of state championships at St. Mary’s. There’s me at Marcos de Niza. We’ve got some good coaches. We picked up Don Harrington, who played with New Mexico State, the Arizona Bowl champions. He’s solid. He just finished playing with my son (Roy Lopez III). It’s awesome. We have Daniel Carr, a new addition from Arizona Christian University with the defensive backs. There are also two Sunnyside alumni, Daniel Rojas who was an all-conference player and then we have Miguel Zamora, who was an All-American.”
The Arizona high school football coaching dream team has Lopez thinking of an improvement in the Blue Devils’ outlook this season.
Zamora remains the lone holdover from Lopez’s first staff in 2016. The Blue Devils have struggled in the first two years under Lopez, going 4-6 in 2016 and 3-7 last year, as he has tried to implement his coaching philosophies.
Lopez has attempted to instill confidence in a young group that consisted of only four seniors last season.
“We have 27 seniors this season, so we’re pretty excited,” Lopez said. “They’re good. They’re big. They’re strong. The boys have worked their hearts out. We have a lot to prove. We haven’t had a good year the last couple of years so we have to start playing football and hitting people better than they hit us.
“We have some tough kids. They are traditionally tough kids. They just have a lot of distractions at home. The kids come from all walks of life. Some have beds to go home and sleep and some have hot meals and some don’t. It’s been that way (for a long time). We play with what we have. They definitely have sacrificed the last couple of years to try to get it back to where we want it. We’re excited.”
A turn for the better occurred when Joseph decided in January to assist his friend and join the Sunnyside staff while he is retired in Tucson. This will mark the third time they have coached together.
Lopez was an assistant under Joseph at Marcos de Niza, coaching the defensive line, when Joseph led that program to success with deep runs in the state playoffs. Lopez and Joseph were also on another dream team of coaches when they were assistants on the staff at Gilbert Mesquite before Lopez took the Sunnyside job.
Also on the Mesquite staff were offensive coordinator Corbin Smith (the son of former Arizona coach Larry Smith who is now the head coach at Tempe McClintock), Jerry Wheeler (former top aide for legendary coach Jesse Parker at Mesa Mountain View) and new Marana coach Louie Ramirez (who also coached with Lopez at Marcos de Niza).
It was at Mesquite where Lopez coached his son before his son went on to win the Arizona Bowl game with New Mexico State over Utah State last December at Arizona Stadium. Harrington played in that game.
“How lucky was I to get one of the top linebackers in the nation to be on my staff?” Lopez said about Harrington, who coaches the linebackers. “He was No. 7 in the nation at one point in tackles.”
Joseph has coached since 1980 when he started as an assistant at Rincon and Salpointe before moving on to winning a state title as the head coach at Mesa Mountain View. He has been retired since 2014 after a stint at Tempe Corona del Sol.
Joseph has has served as basically a volunteer coach at Mesquite and Higley the last three years before taking on the same role with the Blue Devils.
Going from powerhouse programs with better facilities than Sunnyside presently has, and coaching players who are not accustomed to success like his past programs, Joseph still has no regrets for this latest coaching chapter in his life.
When asked if it was a difficult decision to become an assistant at Sunnyside, Joseph said, “For a lot of people it probably would have been but not for me.”
“I’ve done all the things I’ve wanted to as a coach and I’ve been at schools where I’ve won,” he continued. “These kids need help. So it is very rewarding for me to be here with Coach Lopez.
“We get along. That makes a difference. And these are good kids at Sunnyside. They just need guidance. They need direction.”
Has he seen improvement in the Blue Devils’ discipline and confidence over the last seven months since he has been associated with the program?
“Have our kids here improved? Since spring ball, yes. Yes, they have improved,” Joseph said. “They want to win. They just don’t know how. They want to be successful in life. They just need guidance.
“So we just go from there. They’re not afraid to work. They’re tough kids. I’m lucky to be here.”
Lopez said he knows for certain that the Blue Devils “will be coached up.”
He said that Carr, a former Palo Verde standout, should be coaching with a Division I staff. He added that Joseph and Rodriguez have been selected coach of the year multiple times.
“I’m low on the totem pole,” he said with a laugh. “I am very grateful. I think these boys are being taught by some of the best. To have these many coaches who care and are paying attention to detail, we should be better. If we don’t, it’s because we lack discipline and we lack execution.”
The coaching aspect sounds promising for the Blue Devils. How will it play out on the field?
Sunnyside does go down a classification from 6A to 5A this season and Lopez believes the competition is wide open at the 5A level. He did mention the Blue Devils will play in a tough conference that includes Ironwood Ridge, Marana and Cienega.
“I don’t know how we’re going to play. Ask me after a couple of weeks,” Lopez said. “It’s going to be exciting Friday night. Campo Verde is big. They’re strong and they’re fast. They’re going to be well-coached. They are going to walk in here with 80 kids. That’s them. We’re going to try to out-tough them. That will be the biggest thing, out-toughing them.
“I think we’ll make a good turn this year. I don’t know how many games we’re going to win or lose but our senior class is solid. We’re excited. If we don’t beat ourselves than we’re going to be all right.”
Sunnyside senior player interviews
QB Jonathan Lopez
“We’ve improved a lot from last year with a lot of discipline. Everyone is on the same page. Nobody is doing their own stuff. Our coaches have been coaching for a long time. They’ve won a lot of state championships. We’re very excited. I hope we go hard every day and just compete for them. Most of us have played together since we were little. We have a lot of chemistry.”
LB Carlos Camacho
“Twenty-seven seniors compared to only four last year? That’s a huge deal. We’re coming in hefty. We’ve been balling all season, spring ball. We’re a lot more confident because the last two years, we’ve had eight seniors all together. They just came out to play ball. They did their jobs but that is not enough seniors to make a strong team. The coaching staff is great. It’s just a vibe, different than what I’ve experienced the last two years.
On moving from Class 6A to 5A:
“You have 10 games you have to ball out. Those 10 games, it doesn’t matter what bracket you’re in.”
LB Willie Rose
“We were in the rebuilding stage before. We feel the coaches, the coaches feel us and understand us. We feel good with more chemistry. We’ve built a lot of chemstry the last three years. I feel like it will be big because there are more leaders now. Last year, there were a lot of young kids with just a small group of older kids. It’s going to be different because everybody will be like a big brother. We didn’t really have that last year. It means a lot to me to bring that Sunnyside pride back because it means a lot to the community and that’s what a lot of people out here thrive off of, that Sunnyside pride. I am excited to see what our team has to show everybody. Sunnyside won’t go away. We’re not soft Sunnyside. We’re the hard-sticking Sunnyside still.”
TE/LB Ruben Retana
“I think we took a big step from last year. I can see everything slowly developing and going into place. I like what I see, too. From last year, I like what I see developing. Here at Sunnyside, on the southside we’re known that we don’t have discipline, but lately we’ve been having a lot of classes about getting our character back, of who we are, the pride at Sunnyside, I can feel it. Every week we do something. This week’s word is endure. Do what you have to do to get it done. Last week was character, like being responsible. As a senior, it’s a role. When I was a freshman, I looked up at the seniors. I thought they knew what they were doing and they know what they are. For us, I’m now in that place. I take everything serious. Like endure, I’ll take what they say they want it to be, I’ll do it.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.