The Tucson High School football players gathered late Thursday afternoon after practice to hear coach Justin Argraves’ final on-field speech before facing unbeaten and formidable Salpointe Catholic tonight.
Out from this lean and young-looking coach, all of 35 years old, came a booming, deep and sincere voice that could probably be heard at old Roskruge Elementary across the busy traffic on Sixth Street.
“We know who we are!”
Argraves embodies a vision of strength for his players the same way he has since he helped coach his alma mater, Santa Rita, right after he graduated from there in 2001 and was attending the University of Arizona.
He has no choice but to be a coach the Badgers can look to for strength and reassurance, no matter if he blends in with their youthfulness.
The Badgers (5-0) are the only Class 6A team in Tucson this year after Sunnyside and Rincon reclassified following the 2017-18 school year. Tucson is in the 6A Metro, which has five Phoenix-area schools other than the Badgers.
They will play four games in the Phoenix-area this season. Salpointe is the last Tucson-area team on the Badgers’ schedule this season, which is ironic with it being named Tucson High School.
On top of this oddity, Tucson is not assured a playoff spot even if it wins the Metro title. In order to qualify, teams must be ranked No. 1 through No. 16 using a power-points rating system that includes outside input from Max Preps. The state tournament bracket will be seeded according to the overall ranking of the 16 teams.
“If you can figure out or somebody can figure out the power points than let me know because I don’t think anybody in this state has an idea what’s going on with that,” Argraves said. “It’s based on wins (and) competitions, but we don’t know where they lean one way or the other, if it’s competition or straight wins.
“It’s mixed in with Max Preps a little bit. I’m an education major. I’m not an engineer major. I can’t figure that out.”
The rankings come out next week for the first time this season, just another concern for Argraves in a job that is heavy with responsibility. Tucson is similar to a college operation being a high-profile school in town, the oldest of its kind with a broad alumni base that wants to win now.
The Badgers are built through their history to be part of the city’s game-of-the-week encounters such as tonight against an unbeaten Salpointe team that features Division I college prospects Bijan Robinson at running back and Lathan Ransom at safety. Also, the Lancers’ physical lines on both sides of the ball are at the heart of coach Dennis Bene’s success with his team this season.
Argraves literally has no time to rest, starting this morning with a yoga class with his players at 6:30 a.m. on campus.
Going through his mind is getting across the game plan to his players and the importance of a win because he has little or no control over his team’s destiny because of the playoff rating system. Tucson is unbeaten, and most of its wins have been lopsided, but the combined record of the Badgers’ opponents through the first half of the season is 3-20.
“We just have to worry about the game at hand, whatever that game is, and this week it’s Salpointe,” Argraves said. “Our back end of the schedule is more difficult. We have Salpointe that’s undefeated. We’ve got Chavez who is one of the better Phoenix teams and we have Chandler in Week Nine. We’ll definitely see some top-tiered competition.”
Of the matchup with the Lancers, who are 4-0 and preparing to face their first opponent from Southern Arizona, Argraves said, “We just have to stay focused on our assignment, executing our assignment and not making it bigger than what it is and understand that, hey, it’s just another game for us that happens to pit two undefeated teams against each other.”
Argraves is grounded because he was raised that way by his parents. His dad is legendary Mike Argraves, who coached softball, volleyball, track and basketball for 32 years at Tucson, Cholla and Santa Rita, before passing away in December 2016.
Justin often reflects on his father’s teaching and talks about spiritually calling on his dad during his time of need, such as now with the weight of the Badger program on his young shoulders.
With all that’s going on — the unbeaten record, the expectations at Tucson High, playing formidable Salpointe, the ranking system — the younger Argraves can understandably gets lost in it all. That’s when his dad, although not here physically, still speaks volumes from what Justin learned from him.
“He loved what he did and he was probably the most competitive man I know,” Justin said of his dad. “But his one thing that he always pushed was it’s more about trying to make a positive impact on these kids, long term, than the actual winning games.
“You start to get wrapped up in the winning and beating yourself up when something doesn’t go right and that would be the one good thing I could call him and he would calm me down a little bit. He would say, ‘Are the kids learning? Are they headed in the right direction? Are they going to be successful once they leave the program? That’s what matters.”
Argraves reached 50 wins in his nine-year career last week with the 19-14 win over Marana Mountain View, of which he started his career as a head coach in 2010. After going 3-7 there in one season, Tucson hired him as its head coach in 2011 and he is 47-32 with the Badgers, four times reaching at least seven wins in a season.
“We’ve got a lot of kids coming back. We’ve put a lot of kids at the next level whether it be JC, NAIA, Division I,” Argraves said. “They come back and I see them on the sidelines and see how successful they are in the workforce or at school. Seeing that now far outweighs any big victory we’ve had here at Tucson High.
“It just does because it is bigger than the game.”
The game for him now includes standouts such as junior running back Gary Love, who has rushed for 493 yards on 77 carries with seven touchdowns — stats tempered by the fact the Badgers have played backups mostly in the second halves of their games because of the blowouts.
Senior quarterback Jesus Montano is a dual threat passing for 577 yards while rushing for 194. Another senior, linebacker Marcus Latimer, gets the most out of his 5-foot-8 and 183-pound frame leading the Badgers with 45 tackles.
“It’s going to be a tough challenge (at Salpointe),” Argraves said. “They are a very well coached, disciplined football team. That’s tough but we just have to stay focused on our assignment, executing our assignment … if our kids can stay level-headed, we have a chance.
“We feel confident in our kids. They’ve worked their tails off in the offseason and up to this midway point this season. We have extreme confidence in them.”
Argraves pondered a little when asked what his dad would tell him about a game of this magnitude. The young coach’s voice somewhat coarse from barking out the post-practice speech to his players became soft yet still as strong as ever with its conviction.
“He would be pretty pumped. He loved Tucson High football,” Justin said with a smile. “He never missed a game except for when he was in the hospital that one year. That’s the hard thing. I would talk to him every Thursday night, every Friday. Not having him on the sidelines or not having him be a phone call away, that’s been tough.
“But, you know, he’ll be there.”
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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.