Buena coach Joe Thomas looks back at his first two seasons in 2015 and 2016 and how difficult it was at that time to foresee he would still be at the Sierra Vista school five years later.
Thomas’ teams were 0-10 in both of those seasons and lost the season opener to Tucson at home in 2017. A 0-21 start is enough to drive a coach away, either on his own or by the school’s administration.
“We lost every game for two years,” Thomas said incredulously. “The kids made me want to stay. We’ve got some good kids here. I didn’t want to give up on them.”
Buena afforded Thomas the opportunity to build the program without a timetable. The only pressure placed on Thomas was by himself. He came to Buena after posting an 11-19 record in three years at Tombstone High School, his alma mater.
JOE THOMAS BUENA COACHING RECORD
The state of Buena’s program was such — 28-35 under four different head coaches in the six years before Thomas’ hire — that immediate success was unnecessary, especially in a town where students come and go as military brats with their parents stationed at Fort Huachuca.
“It would have been easy to give up after those first two years, but you want to find out how good you are,” Thomas said. “I never want to go somewhere and be the head coach of some team that’s already good.
“I want to be able to make an impact on these kids’ lives on and off the field. You can actually really coach in the situation I was in. You can put in the time and effort.”
After that 0-21 start, the Colts are 21-11 since.
Thomas, 36, coached Buena to a 6-4 record in 2017, 5-5 in 2018 and 8-3 last year with an appearance in the Class 5A state playoffs. It was the Colts’ first postseason appearance since 2013 and only their third since 1993.
Buena is 2-0 this season after dominating victories over San Tan Valley Combs (33-20 score) and Paradise Valley (58-6) on the road the same week Thomas managed to schedule them because of COVID-19 implications involving opponents.
The Colts have an open date this Friday, but Thomas said he will attempt to schedule another opponent.
“We’re still looking for JV and varsity games,” Thomas said. “We’ll try to make sure we have something locked in. That’s possible.”
Buena presently has five games scheduled, one more than the minimum required to qualify for the state playoffs.
The Colts rescheduled their game at Salpointe for Oct. 23. That game was supposed to be played last week before a Lancer tested positive for COVID-19. They also travel to Casa Grande on Oct. 30 before hosting Cienega on Nov. 13.
“The kids are working hard; they’re a reflection of me with their attitude,” Thomas said. “They have accountability, commitment and teamwork. It’s showing right now with how they’re playing.”
Thomas is now in his sixth season at Buena, the school’s second longest tenure at the school. He is behind only the legendary Truman Williamson, who coached at Buena 22 seasons from 1968 to 1989.
Ryan Scherling coached Buena to a region title in 2012, the Colts’ first since Williamson’s 1978 team that went 9-2 overall and 5-0 in the Class AAA Southern Division.
“There’s still some things here that we want to do,” Thomas said. “A region championship is something we’re obviously looking for because we have not done that in a while.”
What helped Thomas stay at Buena after the turbulent start was four-year starting quarterback Jovoni Borbon, who exhausted his eligibility last year and is now a member of the Maricopa Mustangs of the Hohokam Junior College Athletic Conference.
“When I had Jovoni for four years, I was definitely going to be here with him,” Thomas said. “Other kids are working hard for us. It’s hard to get up and leave. I’m not getting offers to coach here or coach there.
“Of course, I’m always thinking about the possibility of going to Vail, of going to Tucson, going to Phoenix … but that’s all in due time.”
Borbon weathered the winless 2016 season as a freshman and finished with 5,666 passing yards while completing 55 percent of his passes (349 of 635) with 46 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,151 yards with 21 touchdowns in his career.
“Not just football, but life skills,” Borbon said when asked about Thomas’ impact on him. “Accountability, commitment and teamwork, being able to show up every day.”
Austin Grimm, a senior who won the starting quarterback position just before the season opener Oct. 2, has been an efficient replacement for Borbon. The 6-foot and 175-pound playmaker has completed 18 of 25 passes for 446 yards with six touchdowns and only one interception. He has rushed for 49 yards on six carries. He is a baseball prospect as a utility player.
Junior wideouts R.J. Armstrong and Keyon Taylor are emerging as big-play threats. Armstrong, playing his first full season at the varsity level, caught touchdown passes of 70 and 23 yards in the opener against Combs. Taylor caught seven passes for 129 yards, including an 86-yard touchdown, in the win over Paradise Valley.
Thomas’ stable of running backs include seniors Isaac Benoit and Tory Walters and sophomore Jelani Brown. They have combined for 343 yards on 38 carries in the first two games.
Offensive tackle Dominic Avant, a physical specimen at 6-5 and 310 pounds, is developing into one of the best in the state. He is scheduled to play in the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl at Arlington, Texas, in December.
“We can keep a defense off-balance a lot with our balance,” Thomas said. “They have to figure out a way to play us. Do they put a safety over the top of those guys and take somebody out of the box?
“We’re able run a lot of outside and have deep ball stuff. I’m sure teams are gonna want to take away the outside and then we just kind of go to mix it up.”
Buena’s physical and swift defense was stout against Combs and Paradise Valley compiling 10 tackles for loss, led by senior defensive end Isaiah Locklear, who has three. William Stemler, a junior who caught a TD pass from Grimm last week as a tight end, leads the Colts with 13 tackles as a defensive end. Locklear is next at 12.
Armstrong, also a safety, and Clea McCaa Jr., a senior cornerback, each have two tackles for loss coming off the perimeter.
Rhubin Harris, a junior linebacker, caused a fumble and recovered it deep in Buena’s territory and returned an interception for a touchdown last week.
“We’re aggressive but not always under control on defense,” Thomas said. “When they calm down, they are more under control. We’ll fix that and work out the kinks in practice. We’ll work on being more resilient.”
Senior placekicker Kailey Peters has also been efficient through the first two games, making all three of her field goal attempts (23, 25 and 19 yards) and is 9 of 11 on extra-point attempts.
Thomas learned about resiliency growing up in a military family of nine. He was a three-sport (football, basketball and track and field) standout at Tombstone.
After graduating from there in 2002, he went on to Pima Community College to play football under Jeff Scurran and run track.
“Joe is one of the nicest and classiest people I’ve ever coached,” Scurran said. “He’s one of those coaches who listens to you when he asks for advice and always puts people first.
“Joe was a well-liked guy with everyone on the team and we are still close today. Truly, I consider Joe one of my ‘football sons’ and I love to have him as part of my coaching tree.”
After his experience at Pima, Thomas went on to compete in track at NAU until 2006.
Thomas turned to coaching by going back to Tombstone and learning under one of his mentors, Mike Hayhurst, who coached at Buena from 1994-97. Thomas said he has also learned his coaching craft from longtime Tombstone basketball coach Robert Bristow and Bristow’s brother Roger, the track coach.
“The thing that I like most about Coach Thomas is he never gives up faith in his players and he believes in us wholeheartedly that we are all capable of great things,” Avant said. “That type of attitude brings out the best in the team.
“The thing that I like most about playing on the team is the great teamwork we have and the undying love and brotherhood that we have formed over the years.”
Thomas, who says he is “big on life skills and keeping the kids encouraged,” ends most of his conversations with his players and their families with the words, “Family-focus Colts.” He also talks of giving back to the Sierra Vista community after the locals stuck with the program through the lean years.
“When I got here, I thought Buena was a sleeping giant,” Thomas said. “I wanted to wake up the sleeping giant and do some things. The last three years, we’ve improved to the point where people don’t want to play us because they might lose or they do want to play us to make their team better.
“To look back and think of how terrible we were in those first two years to how we are now, we’re mostly proud about how we’re developing these young kids into solid young men.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
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.