2021 Southern Arizona High School Football Spotlight: Palo Verde

Palo Verde is playing only a JV schedule because it is at the 4A level and only about 20 players showed up to participate, just four of them juniors and seniors (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

4A Gila (Junior Varsity): Palo Verde

2020 record: 1-2 in a season shortened by COVID-19.

2021: The Titans are playing a junior varsity schedule because of a lack players with experience with only two seniors and two juniors on the roster that was comprised of only about 20 players at the start of the season. They are 2-1 with their JV schedule with a home game against Catalina Foothills scheduled Thursday.

Head coach: Mike Wells, 4-8 in two seasons at Palo Verde (2019 and 2020). Wells has a history of being an assistant coach with Jeff Scurran at Santa Rita and Catalina Foothills. An Ohio native, he and his family moved to Tucson before he played for Scurran at Sabino. He has been a warehouse manager at Eegee’s, working in the early morning hours before heading to Palo Verde for practice.

On Nov. 8, 2009, the last day of the regular season that year, an overflow crowd at Santa Rita watched Palo Verde outlast the Eagles 24-23 in a matchup that included legendary coaches Todd Mayfield of Palo Verde and Jeff Scurran of Santa Rita.

“I remember Santa Rita-Palo Verde games were standing-room only,” said Wells, who was the freshman and junior varsity coach during Scurran’s tenure with the Eagles. “There were really good teams on both ends. Over there (at Santa Rita) it was also standing-room only.

“It was the battle of the eastside. That’s what I want, not only for us but for Santa Rita. … Catalina, we all need to grow.”

That same day, on Nov. 8, 2009, Catalina clinched a spot in the state playoffs.

Palo Verde, which won the Class 4A, Division II state title in 2005 under Mayfield, improved to 9-1 that night and would advance to the state semifinals before losing to Glendale Cactus.

Santa Rita was 8-2 after the loss to the Titans, and the Eagles would eventually advance to their second straight appearance in the state championship game before succumbing to Cactus.

That was then.

Now: Palo Verde, Santa Rita and Catalina have not advanced to the state playoffs since (2010 to last year). The neighborhood schools are a combined 70-245 in that time frame — Santa Rita 22-83, Palo Verde 26-78 and Catalina 22-84.

Now: Palo Verde, in the 4A Gila, is playing only a junior varsity schedule because of a low turnout of players, around 20, with only two juniors and two seniors showing up for the first day of practice.

Now: Santa Rita, under legendary coach Tom Joseph, in his first year, is on a 10-game losing streak dating to the 2019 season and the Eagles have been forced to cancel two games this year at Benson and Tanque Verde because of a lack of healthy players.

Now: Catalina, playing for first-year coach Greg McKinstry, is 3-21 in its last three seasons of games on the field (the 2020 season was canceled because of COVID-19 protocols and the Trojans’ lone win this season was by forfeit).

Catalina (1-6) visits Santa Rita (0-6) on Friday night in what will be a special night for the victor, but also one that will be particularly difficult for the loser.

“With TUSD and these inner-city schools, it’s just getting tougher,” Wells said, noting three Vail schools (Cienega, Empire and Mica Mountain) formed since 2002 have taken a toll on eastside schools such as Palo Verde and Santa Rita.

“Open enrollment is playing a huge factor in that. That started six, seven years ago when I was at Cat Foot with Jeff. It’s changing the whole playing field of everything.”

Wells, who is assisting Palo Verde junior varsity coach Jamal Chatman, said he would like local coaches to be more supportive of each other and network to help alleviate the concerns that are taking place at Palo Verde, Santa Rita, Catalina and Cholla (forced to cancel its game this week with Buena because of a lack of healthy players).

“We all need to grow; we all need to come together as coaches a little bit more,” Wells said. “If we can network more here in our own city, the other cities and other states network with coaches, I think we can do each other a huge service.

“I wish we could network a little bit more and I think that would help the whole quality of the whole city in football. We have these programs that have been on top for a very long time, some that are building and some that are mediocre. If we all work together more, I think it would really help the whole product of Tucson and Southern Arizona football in my opinion.”

Palo Verde’s linemen work out with assistant Keith Smith and his son Kyon, a former standout at Catalina Foothills (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Wells and his staff have a plan in place to increase player involvement when the program returns to the varsity level next season.

He is in communication with the Tucson Scorpions, the eastside youth football organization, and with feeder middle schools to help boost participation levels next year to at least 60 at the freshman/junior varsity and varsity levels.

“I spend time making relationships with (Scorpions) coaches and our feeder junior highs, the stuff that I’m allowed to do that is appropriate and deemed by the AIA that is okay,” Wells said. “I’m selling myself. I’m selling being a Palo Verde Titan and rebuilding the program. I’m selling being a genuine human being who really cares.

“That’s who I want here. I want kids who care. I want kids who want to grow and evolve in life. We’ll grow together and we’ll build this thing back into a championship caliber program.”

Coaching staff:

  • Head coach: Mike Wells
  • JV head coach: Jamal Chatman
  • Assistant: Keith Smith
  • Assistant: Kyon Smith
  • Assistant: Michael Wilhite
  • Assistant: Sean Partridge

JV schedule:



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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District

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