When the Apache Junction football team embarked on its 600-mile, 19-hour round trip to Page on the Arizona-Utah border last Friday, the Tribune went along for the ride.
8:45 a.m.: A half-hour drive from my Tempe residence lands me at Apache Junction High School. After wandering aimlessly around campus for about 10 minutes, I finally stumble upon the football office where I introduce myself to coach Max Ragsdale.
Three games into his third year as the program’s coach, Ragsdale has his Prospectors above .500 and believing a playoff berth is attainable. He’s nearing the end of a remarkable turnaround that began with a winless season in 2003.
9 a.m.: We pile into our conveyance, a customized school bus that looks like it’s been pimped by rapper Xzibit — albeit on a budget. A.J.’s new ride comes complete with personal air conditioning vents and reading lights, overhead luggage racks and a custom black and gold paint job. Hard-backed green vinyl seating, standard.
A year earlier, this trip would have been made on an actual yellow school bus. Many teams rent charters for such long trips, but not A.J. When the Prospectors attended a summer camp 13 hours away in New Mexico last year, they rode out in standard yellow.
9:07 a.m.: Ragsdale takes roll. Thirty-nine players, four coaches, two Tribune employees and one driver (Ragsdale’s dad) are on board. Almost all of us are squeezed two per seat, and these aren’t exactly plush buckets with arm rest buffers. A van will carry two other coaches and three trainers north to Page. All told, 51 souls in two vehicles.
Ragsdale’s last words: "Don’t be pestering each other. It’s gonna be tight and this is going to be a long trip. Last thing, does anyone have to pee?"
9:11 a.m.: And we’re off. Players already are tearing into bags of potato chips. Defensive coordinator Brian Porter shares the story of a unique travel wardrobe — a birthday suit — donned by his college teammate on bus trips. The Prospectors thankfully have chosen gray A.J. football T-shirts and athletic shorts.
Next stop: Flagstaff. ETA: noon
9:53 a.m.: Just 45 minutes into our journey and still south of MetroCenter, senior Cody Anderson calls out the first, "Are we there yet?" Ragsdale and his coaches ignore it. When a second joker tells Ragsdale he has a question, the coach barks, "Don’t ask it."
10:15 a.m.: Several players say their day began at 6:25 a.m. for pregame meetings during their mandatory zerohour football class. Then they had their first-hour class from 7:25-8:15 before heading to the locker room.
10:30 a.m.: Anderson puts a positive spin on the road trip. "It’s great for bonding," he says. "We’ve got six hours with nothing to do but talk to these guys."
Senior Heath McVicker adds, "This is better than English."
10:45 a.m.: Anderson puts into motion a plan to annoy his coaches so much that they play music over the bus’ stereo system. The strategy begins with a "we want music" chant but soon devolves into he and his teammates loudly singing along with the music in their headphones.
Ragsdale is unfazed.
11:12 a.m.: As we reach the second hour of our trip, Anderson is still going strong. The back third of the bus is rapping along with foulmouthed Afroman but skipping over every swear word for nearly six minutes. Players are required to do 10 push-ups every time a coach hears them swear.
11:30 a.m.: The back third of the bus offers a terrible rendition of the Backstreet Boys’ "I Want It that Way." Ragsdale is impressively resistant to Anderson’s Jedi mind tricks.
Boredom is clearly beginning to set in. Senior Heath McVicker says, "That’s the thing that sucks about game day. Seven o’clock is so far away." That’s especially true on this game day.
12:05 p.m.: We stop for a half-hour lunch break at a service station in Flagstaff. Fortyfive travelers rush the fourtoilet men’s restroom. One, female receiver Sammi Durgy, heads for the ladies’ room.
Bladders relieved and junk food purchased, the team proceeds to the parking lot of a neighboring motel to run a series of 20-yard sprints.
After stretching their cramped legs, players enjoy sandwiches, potato chips, granola bars, Rice Krispie treats and juice boxes courtesy of the school’s cafeteria staff.
12:40 p.m.: As we file back onto the bus, Ragsdale takes roll and encourages his players to take short naps and then to spend the remainder of the trip focusing on the upcoming task of actually playing football. "This is a business trip," Ragsdale says.
Next stop: Page High. ETA: 3 p.m.
1:10 p.m.: Half an hour after leaving Flagstaff, not a peep can be heard from what was only an hour earlier a raucous group of teenagers.
On another note, we have lost cell reception for the first time. We’re entering uncharted territory here.
2:42 p.m.: Lake Powell, Page’s No. 1 cash cow, emerges on the left. Six hours on a school bus has numbed my butt and my mind.
On the bright side, cell reception has resumed. Civilization beckons, with one hitch. My phone’s clock reads "3:42". The nearest cell tower is broadcasting Mountain Standard Time from over the Utah border.
3:04 p.m.: Our bus rolls to a stop at Page High School five hours and 53 minutes after leaving Apache Junction and about half an hour ahead of schedule. Ragsdale gives his players those 30 minutes to do whatever they want. After hitting the restroom, many of them choose to sprint on to the field and toss around footballs.
"That’s a good sign," Ragsdale says.
3:35 p.m.: The Prospectors are now on their normal game schedule. Over the next 3 1 /2 hours, the team will conduct a walkthrough, relax in Page’s cramped junior varsity locker room, receive attention from athletic trainers, dress out and participate in some pregame stretching before taking the field for the 7 p.m. kickoff.
4:10 p.m.: Senior Robbie Hernandez is already in full uniform, including his pads and helmet, and sleeping face down on the locker room floor. The rest of the squad is sacked out around the room, rehydrating after a long trip. Half-a-dozen players lie in the shower.
6 p.m.: Junior Ruben Piedra heads to the field wearing injured senior Thomas Wolfe’s No. 42 because he forgot his own jersey in A.J.
A couple clad in black and gold are spotted in the home bleachers, but they’re not lost AJ fans. They’re actually Italian tourists vacationing in Las Vegas who wanted to "see something American" and Friday night football at Sand Devil Stadium was the pick.
6:40 p.m.: Anderson gives a motivational speech and leads the team in the singing of A.J.’s fight song before senior Travis Robbins delivers a pregame prayer. A little piece of home has been taped to the locker room wall near the exit to the football field. It’s a sheet of paper reading: Believe 1. Winning Record 2. Playoffs
"You touch that sign and you believe," players shout as they file out of the locker room, hand in hand, ready for a game they feel is vital to their hopes for the season.
7:02 p.m.: Kickoff. Facing a team with inferior talent, A.J. must get out of town with a win. Coming all this way to lose would be like driving all the way to California to discover Wally World is closed.
8:11 p.m.: Despite poor tackling and bad line play, the Prospectors lead 21-19 at halftime. Porter, playing the bad cop, rips into the team before turning the floor over to good cop Ragsdale. "You fought back from a lot of adversity," Ragsdale says. "Hell, a sixhour bus ride is adversity."
9:10 p.m.: The Prospectors come out of the locker room determined to get physical with the out-manned, undersized Sand Devils. The approach pays off as Ari Kalan hauls in his third touchdown catch for a 35-19 lead early in the fourth quarter.
9:39 p.m.: The game goes into the books as a 35-25 A.J. win. Six days of preparation and six hours on a school bus pay off. Players belt out the A.J. fight song to a group of about 30 fans before returning to the locker room.
10 p.m.: A number of players will travel back to A.J. with their parents or stay the night in Page so they can visit the Grand Canyon the next day.
Those who will be on the bus feel a social obligation to wash up, though football etiquette does not require a full shower.
"We’re going to be on the bus for six hours, so it’s the right thing to do," Wolfe says.
10:25 p.m.: After a nearmidnight snack of leftover lunches, Ragsdale calls roll. We’re heavy one player, whose uncle never showed up in Page and thus will return to A.J. with the group. And we’re off.
Next stop: Flagstaff. ETA: 1 a.m.
10:55 p.m.: Most of our travel party has dozed off. The monitors of handheld video games and portable DVD players cast a blue tint on a handful of players’ exhausted faces. Wolfe and senior Brandon Leach play back game footage on a camcorder. As cell service fades, so does our resistance to the sandman.
12:51 a.m.: We near our final pit stop. Someone in the back of the bus loudly announces our arrival in Flagstaff and he is insulted, sleepily but appropriately.
As the bus pulls into a service station, its contents are unleashed on the two-toilet men’s room. Though we have just one female passenger, she isn’t the only one to head for the empty ladies’ room.
1:05 a.m.: Ragsdale calls roll for the fourth and final time as freshly-purchased junk food and soda pop are opened. The scent of corn nuts fills the air. More sleep seems a fool’s hope as players inhale caffeine and sugar.
1:09 a.m.: Ding, ding, ding! We have our first mamma joke. Amazingly, a group of nearly 40 teenage boys has restrained itself for 16 hours.
1:20 a.m.: Despite the influx of sweets, the team settles back into a silent, yet highly uncomfortable, slumber.
3:06 a.m.: We pass Thunderbird Road on Interstate 17. Thank goodness. Some of the players have given up trying to sleep in the hard, cramped vinyl seats and are sleeping on the floor.
3:53 a.m.: A dozen or so cheerleaders meet our bus as it pulls into Apache Junction High School and form a tunnel through which their triumphant heroes must pass while unloading. Not all are impressed.
"It’s four in the morning. What the hell are they thinking?" junior Nick Garret wonders.
A 22-hour day committed to nothing but Prospector football is nearing an end for players and coaches. The payoff: stiff backs, some serious team bonding and one more win toward the ultimate goal of putting Apache Junction football back on the map.
"We’ve got a big game this week," Ragsdale says to his players as they rub the sleep from their eyes. "I don’t want to see your ugly faces around here until Monday."