Rich Milligan might be in his first year as Apache Junction’s varsity coach, but he’s no dummy.
If the Prospectors are going to have success in their move up to 4A-I this year, it will have plenty to do with standout running back Shane McCullen. Last year, Apache Junction finished with a 9-5 record and made it to the state semifinals, largely because of the 6-foot-2, 190-pound junior who ended up with 1,903 yards and 21 touchdowns.
McCullen mixes a punishing running style with a smooth gait. His 40-yard dash time is clocked at 4.47 seconds.
“He’s got deceptive speed,” Milligan said. “He never looks like he’s running as fast as he’s running. Everybody thinks they have an angle on him, but he can outrun them.”
Milligan might be new to the varsity ranks, but he’s no stranger to his players.
Formerly the Apache Junction freshman coach, Milligan estimates that 90 percent of the team has been on the sidelines with him before.
“Having that relationship, the kids understand you and you know what buttons you can push,” Milligan said. “It’s absolutely an advantage.”
The Prospectors not only are moving up to 4A-I, they’re moving into arguably the conference’s toughest region in the Desert Sky. It houses two defending state champions (Saguaro from 4A-I, Cactus Shadows from 4A-II) and traditional power Chaparral.
“We’re not naïve,” Milligan said. “We know it’s an uphill fight. It’s a league where you better show up every Friday night with your 'A’ game.”
Conference/Region: 4A-I/Desert Sky
2006 record: 9-5, lost in state semifinals
Coach: Rich Milligan, 1st year
Returning offensive starters: 3, including Shane McCullen, who rushed for 1,903 yards (147 yards per game) and 21 touchdowns as a sophomore.
Returning defensive starters: 1, Louie Crespo, who had 62 tackles and three fumble recoveries last year.
Sept. 20 at Chaparral: The Firebirds welcome Apache Junction into the Desert Sky Region.
Oct. 26 vs. Cactus Shadows: Former 4A-II foes face off, now in 4A-I.
Nov. 2 vs. McClintock: The season finale could have state tournament implications.