Palo Verde’s faculty and students put together a pep rally Friday in the school’s gymnasium and a festive tailgate gathering at the corner of the parking lot near the entrance to the football field leading up to the season opener against San Tan Foothills.
The scene at Palo Verde, an institution with a storied football past, was one of a program that is bent on emerging from the shadows and leaving behind the darkness of 11 straight seasons without a winning record and playing only a junior varsity schedule last year because of a lack of healthy, experienced players.
Palo Verde lost to San Tan Foothills 48-0 on Friday night while mustering only 18 yards of total offense, but first-year coach Jamal Chatman commented, “Nobody took their helmet off and had a temper tantrum … with all that being said, we have a start.”
Chatman is well aware of difficult challenges and trying to work through them. His first five years of head coaching experience at Gorham (Maine) High School between 2012 and 2016 resulted in a 1-31 record, according to MaxPreps.
Palo Verde first-year coach Jamal Chatman considers the 48-0 season-opening loss to San Tan Foothills a “building block” with the Titans playing their first varsity game in two years. Can draw some positives from the game. pic.twitter.com/r9BvOha2QK
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) August 20, 2022
The challenge now at Palo Verde for Chatman: Ever since Todd Mayfield coached Palo Verde to the 2009 state semifinals, completing an 11-2 season, the Titans have not produced a winning season.
Starting with Palo Verde’s state title in 2005 — the last championship achieved by a Tucson neighborhood public school — through 2009 under Mayfield, the Titans went 46-15.
The record of the program since is 26-78, including no more than five wins in a season since Palo Verde went 5-5 in Mayfield’s return for one season in 2013.
Mike Wells had the Titans at 3-3 in 2019, but then his team lost four straight games to finish that season.
COVID-19 hit in 2020, limiting Palo Verde to a split of only two games against equally-challenged Catalina and Santa Rita.
Despite the struggles over the last decade, Palo Verde keeps trying to get back to the promise of yesteryear.
The Titans also acheived the historic 1973 state championship with a 13-0 record under legendary coach Van Howe. The wild 22-20 comeback win over Phoenix Camelback was selected AllSportsTucson.com’s top championship game involving Southern Arizona schools in a recent ranking.
“We’re not done,” Chatman said. “It’s just the beginning. This (game against San Tan Foothills) is the first block that we can try to lay.
“Hey, the foundation might’ve got a little murky but guess what? We’re going to shock this concrete and come back and play harder.”
An example of Palo Verde barely scratching the surface is sophomore Julian Blackburne, who played his first organized football game Friday.
He looked like he belongs on a football field anywhere.
He returned a kickoff 25 yards in the fourth quarter (it appeared as though he could break free for a much longer return but a teammate accidentally ran into him), sprinted 22 yards for a first down on a fake-punt play and booted a couple of punts for 40 and 43 yards.
“Keep moving, keep pushing forward, and we’ll do better next time,” Blackburne said.
Palo Verde player to watch: Sophomore Julian Blackburne – playing the first organized football game of his career – had a 25-yard kickoff return and a 22-yard first-down run on a fake punt in the 48-0 loss to San Tan Foothills. Also had punts of 40 and 43 yards. pic.twitter.com/vq54APZuGq
— Javier Morales (@JavierJMorales) August 20, 2022
People who do not follow local high school football closely put too much emphasis on shallow thinking — wins and losses, without any knowledge of the challenges and daily grind endured by the players (most ages 14 to 17) and coaches just to play the game.
It’s been written that high school football in Southern Arizona is in decline. That’s simple to write without putting forward the legwork to actually meet the coaches and players and observe and learn what they are trying to do to improve the game around here.
No thought is given to what Chatman and his staff are trying to build at Palo Verde, what Greg McKinstry and his Catalina Trojans are working toward and what legendary coach Tom Joseph is attempting to instill in his Santa Rita players.
The contention that schools in 3A should feel inferior in this state is baseless. Try telling that to Sabino coach Ryan McBrayer and Pusch Ridge coach Kent Middleton, who perennially lead their teams to the postseason. The 3A conference in Arizona last year was by far the most competitive of any of the classifications. It’s shaping up to be the same way this season.
Palo Verde unfortunately moved into the formidable 3A South this season with Sabino, Pusch Ridge, Thatcher and Safford after being at the 4A level. A move to 2A would have been more suitable considering the Titans’ challenge of building a roster of more than 30 players.
Palo Verde had 25 players in uniform against San Tan Foothills, a Queen Creek school which suited 38.
The Titans had five players that rushed 30 times for 15 yards. They had 14 running plays with negative yardage. Eleven different San Tan Foothills players carried the ball a total of 44 times for 314 yards.
The Sabercats’ Dalton Norman completed five of six pass attempts for 105 yards and a touchdown. Palo Verde freshman quarterback Kameron Pippen and his teammates are trying to learn the wing-T option formation implemented by Chatman and his staff. Pippen attempted only two passes, completing one for three yards, and he rushed 11 times for 25 yards.
“We’re going to get them together so they can understand the formations correctly, so we can line up correctly,” said Chatman, whose team had five false-start penalties. “We can be stronger on the defense and learn how to tackle better.
“On the offensive side, we have to understand what we’re supposed to be doing. We had a lot of missed alignments and people not taking the right gaps. All those things with a young group, you have to teach them.”
Palo Verde is scheduled to play its next three games on the road against Florence, Catalina and Santa Rita before returning home to play Sabino on Sept. 16.
SAN TAN FOOTHILLS 48, PALO VERDE 0
|San Tan Foothills||7||28||6||7||48|
STF: Austin Maselli 2 run (Christian Swatzell kick)
STF: Emilio Soto 6 run (kick blocked)
STF: Isaiah Luquin 5 run after fumble recovery (Maselli run)
STF: Elijah Fields 16 pass from Dalton Norman (Swatzell kick)
STF: Colton Hoffman 3 run (Swatzell kick)
STF: Eugenio Sandoval 19 run (kick failed)
STF: Hoffman 1 run (Swatzell kick)
San Tan Foothills: Soto 5-77, Sandoval 4-63, Maselli 5-50, Hoffman 5-36, Jaxon Reno 3-33, Aiden Gildas 4-19, Dallas Samuelu 5-15, Norman 4-10, Norvin Avila 3-6, Luquin 1-5, Bryce Jay 2-5.
Palo Verde: Kameron Pippen 11-25, Julian Blackburne 1-22, Spencer Iban 14-3, Sabien Madison 1-3.
San Tan Foothills: Norman 5-6-0, 105 yards (1 TD).
Palo Verde: Pippen 1-2-0, 3 yards.
San Tan Foothills: Fields 2-48, Jaiden Pacheco 1-26, Hoffman 1-19, Sota 1-12.
Palo Verde: Tra’Celle Porter 1-3.
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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. 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.