No Jamarye Joiner this season. No problem.
No coaching continuity with six of his assistants deciding to stick to their day jobs after last season. No problem.
No close road games. No problem.
No short commute to work to Vail from his northwest Tucson home. No problem.
Cienega coach Pat Nugent has experienced difficult challenges before and made those problems a no-problem situation.
In 2009, he left CDO, where he built a winning program over nine seasons with a 72-30 record, to take over a Pima Community College job in which the Aztecs went 1-39 the previous four seasons. By the time he left in 2013, he built the program to .500 level, finishing 5-5 his last season, which considering the circumstances, was like going undefeated.
Nugent, who left Pima because he felt he got the most out of his resources, began his coaching career at Flowing Wells. He went 18-13 in three years with the Caballeros before moving on to CDO, which was winless in 2008 before his arrival. Flowing Wells has experienced only three winning seasons since. Within five years at CDO, Nugent took the Dorados to the Class 4A state championship.
So Nugent knows all about problems, and he certainly is facing them at Cienega this season, but he is not one to allow outside forces control how his team plays on the field.
“We’ve got a really good football team this year, but nobody’s picking us. We’re 26th in the power rating for 4A,” Nugent said. “I understand that Jamarye Joiner (who took his quarterback exploits to Arizona) was a superstar. You can’t replace Jamarye. We have two quarterbacks (seniors Thomas Webb Jr. and Luis Morales) playing who I love to death and are doing a great job for us.
“Jamarye Joiner’s different, a freak of an athlete, a DI quarterback — you don’t get those guys very often. But we’re excited as a full team. More guys are going to have to step up. More guys will have to do it.”
Nugent, 52, is 29-8 in his fifth season with the Bobcats after replacing Nemer Hassey, who coached Cienega in the first 13 years of its existence.
Nugent, whose team beat a short-manned Cholla team 58-0 last week, believes this is his deepest team, which should make opposing coaches more nervous than what they usually are facing the Bobcats.
Nugent referred to his program as “huge” and described what Hassey built before him as a “monster.”
“The great thing we have this year, which we haven’t had in the past, is that we’re two-deep,” Nugent said. “We’re pretty solid. Our twos (second-teamers) are as good as our ones (starters), we like to say. It’s a competitive battle every day in our own practice field.”
That fierce competition has helped ease Nugent’s concerns heading into tonight’s home opener against Phoenix Sunnyslope, which started its season last week with a hard-fought 41-27 loss at Notre Dame Prep.
Nugent admits the Bobcats “did not have much of a game” at Cholla last week after the game was postponed until Saturday because of lightning storms last Friday night. The Chargers had numerous injuries and some of their players could not make it on a Saturday.
“It’s going to be a real challenge (against Sunnyslope),” Nugent said. “We didn’t have much of a game last week. We didn’t scrimmage, so I’m kind of worried about where we’re at as a program, especially going into a big game against a Phoenix school.
“We didn’t scrimmage because we knew it was better for us to go against ourselves. It was unfortunate that Cholla was a rainout and their injuries, and kids couldn’t play on Saturday. We didn’t get our ones the reps we were hoping for. We haven’t played a lot of football, so we’re a little concerned about that.”
Sunnyslope was ahead of Notre Dame Prep 27-19 last week in the fourth quarter before the Saints scored 22 unanswered points.
Niko Haen, a junior quarterback, passed for 201 yards while completing 16 of 26 passes for Sunnyslope. Haen (63 yards on 11 carries) and senior running back Xamoi Penn (64 yards on 12 carries) helped the Vikings gain 146 yards on the ground. Penn also caught eight passes for 110 yards.
“It is a really solid Phoenix team,” Nugent said. “They made the playoffs last year, won their region. They opened with Notre Dame, which is a big test for them. They are solid all the way across the board. … They’re running back is a heck of a big size, a good looking kid.
“They have one-way players on both sides of the ball. We expect a lot. It’s going to be a real challenge.”
Cienega will put its 16-game home winning streak and 24-game regular season winning streak on the line tonight.
Nugent feels confident with having a deep team, including standout senior athlete Terrell Hayward.
Cienega is a machine with 192 athletes in its football program — freshman, junior varsity and varsity — which is the most in Southern Arizona, according to Nugent.
“Each kid wants to get to that varsity level,” he added. “We really have a lot of kids to choose from and now the talent level has really picked up. We’ve got it rolling right now.”
Cienega had six rushing touchdowns made by five different players last week against Cholla. Webb, senior running back Geo Owens and junior running back Jahn Flores each had at least 40 yards rushing.
Hayward, who has nine scholarship offers including NAU and South Dakota State, used his speed for a touchdown reception and 63-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. He also had a tackle for loss as a defensive back.
“Terrell was a superstar last year and he’s just going to carry it over this year,” Nugent said of the 5-10, 165-pound standout. “He touched the ball three times last week and scored two touchdowns. He’s a freak of an athlete himself.
“He’s going to be a big time player for us. He’s done everything he could as a high school football player. His performances have been unbelievable. I wish he had more recognition because he deserves more. But because of his size people are kind of looking past him. He plays big and he’s a star.”
Who is coaching his team is more of a concern for Nugent than his talent. Nugent was forced to replace six coaches on his staff from last season because they decided to concentrate on their own jobs in the Tucson area. One of them was former Arizona punter Brett Holley, who has been on the staff for the last few years. Former Arizona lineman Mark Fontana is also no longer with the program now that his sons have graduated from Cienega.
Nugent knows of the difficulty of the commute to Cienega in Vail, with him still living on the northwest side. He has encountered that as a challenge when selling the opportunity to help coach the Bobcats. They low amount of pay in relation to hours worked and the demands of a winning program are also tough challenges when trying to attract coaches.
“The hardest part is not so much the kids but the coaching changes,” Nugent said. “We feel we have a good group of guys, but it’s new to them. It’s new to our kids. Styles are different. It’s just been hard. It’s always a hard thing. it’s hard for the kids to adjust. They change classrooms, they have new teachers, but you’ve got to grow and learn from each person and each person is going bring something different to the table.
“We had to go outside, a couple of my connections outside a little bit. We’ve moved a couple of young guys up through the ranks. There’s not a lot of coaches out there and a lot of guys who want to work the hours that football coaches work. I can’t speak for the reasons why people don’t want to coach. The pay is low and the work is a lot. We’re a high-level program and expectations are very high here. We have a tough fan base and they want us to succeed and you have to work your tail off to do that.”
A home game is coveted more than usual at faraway Cienega. Of the Bobcats’ remaining four road games, the closest game is at Mountain View in Marana. They also travel to Peoria Centennial, Nogales and Buena in Sierra Vista.
A daunting traveling schedule like that is one of Nugent’s least concerns heading into tonight’s matchup with Sunnyslope. He is most anxious to see how his team responds to the challenge the Vikings will present with his team not having Joiner, a preseason scrimmage and much of a test last week at Cholla.
“As a head coach, I love what we do, but I’m not going to lie … we haven’t been punched in the mouth yet,” Nugent said. “I don’t know how this group will respond. This is a 2018 group that hasn’t played a real football game yet and we’re playing right away against a team from Phoenix. Any time you play a team from Phoenix, you know it’s going to be physical and you have to be able to handle it.
“We’re home. We have a brutal one next week with Centennial, but I’m glad we’ve got Sunnyslope home and then Centennial on the road. Sunnyslope at home will be a big advantage. We haven’t lost here in a long time. This program right now has not lost 24 straight regular season games. That’s a lot of games. That’s a lot of wins for a group of kids. We’ve got a little bit riding on every game. We know that’s going to come to an end sooner or later. These guys don’t want their game to be a part of that.”
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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.