Santa Rita principal on only JV football season this fall: “Only viable option” due to safety concern

Santa Rita High School principal Tamara Ray, new athletic director Bryant Howard and first-year football coach Douglas Smith have foremost the best interest of their student-athletes in mind with the cancellation of the 2023 varsity season with the intent to play only a junior varsity season for the underclassmen.

“Our spring football numbers, specifically with our incoming seniors, fell short of what was needed to confidently move forward with our goal of a varsity schedule,” Ray mentioned. “The biggest driver of this decision was student safety. Pulling out of the varsity schedule, although incredibly difficult, was truly the only viable option.

“The JV schedule is the best opportunity for our athletes, most of whom are in the ninth and 10th grades and have limited exposure to the sport, to develop their skills and reduce the risk of injury that would be undeniably present if competing against older, more advanced/developed varsity players.”

The Eagles’ program has faced the challenge of dwindling enrollment figures over the last 10 to 12 years due to open enrollment and the three nearby Vail schools (Cienega, Empire and Mica Mountain) opening their doors over the last two decades.

Santa Rita football was forced to cancel its operations midway through last season after an 0-5 start with the last three games forfeited due to a lack of healthy and eligible players.

The year before that was the COVID-19-impacted season in 2020 in which many programs were forced to cancel their games.

Santa Rita lost both of the games it played that year under former coach Richard Sanchez. The program was coached by Tom Joseph last season. Smith, a former defensive coordinator at El Mirage Dysart, was hired in February to coach the program. He will coach the junior varsity team this year. The school’s plan is to resume varsity play in 2024.

Ray mentioned that since Santa Rita had to cancel half of its season last year, it has been “fully committed to reestablishing the program for the 2023 season.”

“This spring, we proudly hired our new athletic coordinator, Bryant Howard, who embodies three decades of athletic program development and head football coach, Douglas Smith, who has an energy and leadership style conducive to program growth and sustainability,” Ray added. “Together, they have spent the past couple of months prescriptively assessing program strengths and areas of need.”

Palo Verde faced a similar predicament in 2021, the year after the COVID-19-affected season. The Titans played only a junior varsity schedule because all but two of the approximate 20 players who attended fall camp were freshmen and sophomores. Palo Verde, a 4A school at the time, canceled its varsity season because of a safety concern for their underdeveloped players competing against juniors and seniors of other established programs.

“This approach has already proven to be successful as evidenced by Palo Verde High Magnet School,” Ray stated. “We know that the future of our football program will benefit from this adjustment, as well. We are choosing this approach to minimize the risk of injury for our current student-athletes as well as secure competitive opportunities for our future student-athletes for many years to come.”

Bryant Howard, Santa Rita’s new athletic director

Howard’s career in scholastic sports spans more than three decades.  After growing up as a multiple-sport athlete, he began coaching youth basketball, baseball and softball while a student at the University of Oregon.  He has coached basketball, baseball, golf, tennis, cross country and track & field at the high school level. 

Combining individualized athlete development with an ability to construct high performing teams that have earned championships in each of those sports, he was recognized as conference “coach of the year” on four occasions in multiple sports. 

Howard is a career educator beginning in Oakland, Calif., as a Teach for America Corps Member, before returning to Oregon to teach and coach at the high school and college levels. 

In 2018, he moved to Colorado Springs to direct Coach Education for USA Triathlon and worked to develop a modern coach development pathway used to educate coaches across the country. At the collegiate level, Howard has coached cross country, track & field and most recently led two separate NCAA triathlon programs to regional championships and national podiums. 

Outside of scholastic coaching, he has developed 17 professional triathletes, guided dozens of age group triathletes to national and world championship podiums and has developed endurance training facilities across the U.S. and internationally. 

Howard is USA Track & Field trained, has completed the USA Cycling Level II Certification and is currently among a select group of coaches with a USA Triathlon Level III Elite Coaching Certification. 

“As you can imagine, we are incredibly excited for Coach Howard to join our Santa Rita team! He brings over three decades of experience, knowledge, and program success, as well as a solid vision for leading and impacting our Santa Rita athletic programming moving forward,” Ray stated in a school press release.

“I am extremely grateful to have the unique opportunity here at Santa Rita to combine my love of athlete development and team building with the opportunity to lead a collaborative team of coaches within the athletic department,” Howard stated.

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