He is now the dean of high school football coaches in Southern Arizona and also has the most career victories among them, but Richard Sanchez is at Square One attempting to revive Santa Rita’s athletic department.
“There are a lot of challenges of becoming the athletic director here in the sense that we’re building the school back up academically and athletically,” said Sanchez, who replaced Luis Blanco in July after Blanco left to become Sabino’s Assistant Principal of Interscholastic & Field Operations.
Santa Rita has largely struggled with its athletic programs because of declining enrollment over the last decade. With students attending Tucson High (a magnet school) and eastside schools such as Palo Verde and Sahuaro, families have shifted away from Santa Rita.
Moreover, nearby Vail schools such as Cienega, Empire and now Mica Mountain have drawn away students.
The Eagles were reclassified from 3A to 2A in 2018 because of an enrollment of less than 400 after having more than 1,000 students less than 10 years ago.
“It’s challenging for us to find coaches right now,” said Sanchez, who will remain as the head football coach. “If a position opens up somewhere, you’ll get four or five applicants. At Santa Rita, you’ve got to go find them.”
In the midst of the arduous restructuring task, Sanchez is also at the forefront attempting to handle the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on athletics, namely his football team.
He hopes to be coaching his third year at Santa Rita this school year — he prefers in the spring because of the health risks — so he can continue his rebuilding project with that struggling program.
After going 0-10 in his first season (2018) with the Eagles, Sanchez coached Santa Rita to a 3-7 record last year. In the last eight years, the Eagles have a record of 10-68.
Sanchez had only 34 players on his roster last season, 16 of whom were freshmen or sophomores.
“I’m in a situation where we’re taking on a challenge,” Sanchez said. “As an AD, I want to find coaches who want to take on challenges, coach kids and improve programs. Those are your coaches.
“It’s really easy to go into a place that’s loaded. Building a program and sustaining a program is important. It’s not a case that you had a group of kids for two to three years, you did well but then the program dropped. It’s about sustaining it for eight, nine, 10, 12 years.”
After coaching Sunnyside’s wrestling program to state titles from 1990-94, Sanchez took the football program back to the dominance of the Paul Petty days of the 1970’s and early 1980’s. The Blue Devils reached the postseason 14 times in his 18 seasons as head coach. In the five years before Sanchez became the head coach, Sunnyside went 27-26 and had won one postseason game.
His 20 years as a head coach makes him the dean of local high school football coaches. Benson’s Chris Determan is next at 19 years followed by Cienega’s Pat Nugent with 17 years.
Sanchez’s career win total of 161 games, with a record of 161-75, is the most among active coaches in Southern Arizona, topping Nugent (136-57), Determan (125-81-1) and Mountain View’s Matt Johnson (119-66).
Salpointe’s legendary coach Dennis Bene, who resigned at the end of last season, was the previous active leader in victories with 184. He was 184-43 in his 19 seasons at his alma mater.
When told he leads active local coaches in victories, Sanchez said with a laugh, “Actually, I don’t know how many wins that is … All I know is that we played in the state championship game four times at Sunnyside and we won two of them (2001 and 2003).”
The uncertainty of the upcoming season because of COVID-19 may affect his opportunity to build on his win total.
Class 2A and 3A football teams from Southern Arizona public schools were not included in the recent scheduling alignment, as reported by Lee Patterson, sports director at KATO-AM in Safford, because Pima County school districts announced last week that their schools will not schedule or participate in sports competitions until high schools have returned to in-person instruction and clearance to practice and compete comes from the Pima County Health Department.
That may not happen soon with the PCHD’s recent disease data showing criteria is not met in two areas — a required reduction in cases over two consecutive weeks (with complete reporting of cases) and the percent of positivity from tests.
“There’s the possibility we’ll have a schedule of only Southern Arizona schools and start that in October going through December for teams down here so kids don’t miss out,” Sanchez said. “I’m guessing if we do that, we can schedule eight games. It all depends on how things are going with that COVID-19.
“I’m not too keen on kids going out there and passing it on to somebody else at home. If they catch it themselves, they may not get terribly ill but the effects afterward are a concern. That virus can hit their hearts and lungs. I’ve been keeping up with that and athletes who have had COVID-19 have experienced trouble getting back to shape. With some people in general, six weeks after they had it, their lungs are shot.”
Sanchez said the focus of school districts should be primarily on academics “with kids not even physically in school yet.”
“That really should be our priority, making sure we have the education part of it straightened out,” he said. “One of my coaches has been e-mailing and texting kids that they have to do their work online, especially with eligibility coming up.”
The AIA announced yesterday that its Sports Medicine Advisory Committee will present its latest recommendations regarding the return to sports and activity during a special meeting Wednesday with the AIA’s Executive Board. The board will review this document and any changes that might be made prior to that meeting.
At that time, the AIA will likely determine whether it will keep football and other sports such as volleyball, swimming and diving, cross country and golf in the fall or push them back to the spring.
If the AIA decides to keep sports in the fall, practice at school sites can begin Sept. 7. However, if the PCHD determines it is not yet safe for students to return to school by then, the Southern Arizona public schools will likely have to branch out on their own and play at a later date as Sanchez mentioned.
Southern Arizona High School Football Coaching RecordsTop 10 Southern Arizona high school football coaches based on overall career head coaching records. Compiled and researched by AllSportsTucson.com.
|Richard Sanchez||Santa Rita||2A||161||75||0||.682||20|
|Matt Johnson||Mountain View||5A||119||66||0||.643||16|
Pusch Ridge, a 3A private school located in Oro Valley, is slated to start its season Oct. 2 and will play a seven-game schedule. That depends on if the AIA does not push back fall sports on Wednesday.
“I know everybody wants to play and everybody thinks they should play for the kids’ psyche, but I’d rather have them have a career down the road rather than be done after five or six games,” Sanchez said. “I think we can move into the spring and not play full schedules — seven games, something like that.
“Maybe we can get done by February or March and baseball can start then and go into June, even if school’s out.”
Sanchez, who served as the assistant principal for activities and athletics at Sunnyside, must keep in mind the best interests of spring-sport athletes as well as Santa Rita’s athletic director.
“I understand we have to take care of them because their seasons were canceled last year and we will take care of them,” Sanchez said.
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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.