When Max Ragsdale left Apache Junction to start the Campo Verde football program five years ago, he was well aware of the geographical complexities awaiting him.
Apache Junction is in a secluded location far east of Phoenix, and for the most part, the kids who grow up there play football for the Prospectors.
Campo Verde, meanwhile, sits at Germann Road and Val Vista Dr. in Gilbert, in the middle of a densely populated landscape.
The school is within five miles of Perry, Williams Field, Higley and Basha, while football powers Chandler and Hamilton are both within manageable driving distances.
In the age of open enrollment and transfers, it’s a volatile spot. A string of good years can bring an influx of kids, but a period of losing can drive them away.
It’s the new age of high school football, and while Campo Verde boasts nice facilities and a synthetic turf playing surface, the competition for players will always be present.
“I knew when we took this job at this location, that piece of it was always going to be a struggle,” Ragsdale said. “Those Chandler schools seem to attract the better athletes. We’ve lost, just this past year, two to a Chandler school and two to a Higley school. So I know what it’s like to lose kids. It’s one of those things that’s going to happen, and I can’t really control it, but we’ll just keep doing what we do.”
From the sound of it, Ragsdale has resigned himself to secondary status in the area’s battle for talent.
But then you look at the standings and realize that maybe the Coyotes are on to something.
Campo Verde went 6-5 in its initial varsity season in 2011 and improved to 7-4 a season ago.
This year has been the best yet. After a 28-7 win over perennial power Marcos de Niza on Friday night, the Coyotes are 5-1 overall and ranked No. 5 in the Tribune’s Division II poll. They are currently No. 6 in the power point rankings.
Campo Verde may not have the same elite talent as neighboring schools — defensive tackle Finton Connolly received a scholarship offer from Arizona on Monday, the first player in the program’s history with a Division I offer — but there’s a cohesive approach which has helped the team play beyond its means.
“We had kind of a bloodletting as soon as the year ended last year,” Ragsdale said. “We had to take care of some attitude issues, and a few of them are no longer on the team. It really brought this group closer together, and I shudder to think what would have happened if we hadn’t done that. We might not be where we’re at right now.
“Everybody’s in, from the kid who doesn’t see the field on Friday nights to the kid who never comes off the field on Friday nights. Everybody feels a part of it.”
The Coyotes may not overwhelm in any area, but they also don’t have many deficiencies.
The defense leads the way, a unit which has allowed slightly more than 10 points per game on the season. The offense is run-heavy but has still done a good job scoring: its 37 points-per-game average is tied for 13th in the division.
Campo Verde could very well be undefeated, as it had a late lead on Highland in Week 5, but couldn’t hold on after quarterback Luke Pineda was knocked out of the game with a head injury.
He returned in the win over Marcos de Niza and personifies the Coyotes. Pineda doesn’t have the biggest arm or the quickest burst in the East Valley, but he almost always make the right decisions. He has thrown for 743 yards with 11 touchdowns on the year and does not have an interception. He has 65 carries for 366 yards and four scores, and only lost one fumble.
Pineda is the team’s most well-known player, he quickly deflects attention to the defense.
“Our defense is always putting us in good positions as an offense,” he said. “They make it easier for us. They always come up with big plays.”
The Campo Verde program easily could have taken a step back this year. It moved up a level to Division II and lost its 10 leading tacklers from 2012.
Instead, it’s flourishing.
Ragsdale is not a win-at-all-costs coach. He’s just as interested in turning his players into good men as winning football games.
Sometimes, though, those two things go hand-in-hand.
“It’ll be neat to step back one day — though it probably won’t be for awhile — and see how it’s going,” Ragsdale said. “Hopefully we keep trending and keep doing what we need to do. Hopefully this is not just a flash in the pan. It’s nice to see us progressing and that has a lot to do with everybody buying in. We want to go out and change young men’s lives. And along the way, let’s get some ‘W’s.’”
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at email@example.com or (480) 898-6576.