Apache Junction Prospectors
Division III, Section III
Coach: Jeff Rathjen
Last year’s record: 2-8, did not qualify for Division III playoffs.
Returning offensive starters: 7, including quarterback Brett Darling.
Returning defensive starters: 7, including linebacker Caleb Willams.
Aug. 24 at Campo Verde; Aug. 31 vs. Perry; Sept. 7 vs. Shadow Ridge; Sept. 14 vs. Higley; Sept. 21 vs. Queen Creek; Sept. 28 at Tempe; Oct. 4 vs. Williams Field; Oct. 12 vs. Blue Ridge; Oct. 19 at Combs; Oct. 26 vs. Poston Butte.
Aug. 24 at Campo Verde: The Coyotes won last year’s meeting by 25 points and return 10 defensive starters, so Apache Junction will be hard-pressed to pick up a victory in this one. However, if the team can at least stay competitive, it will be a good omen as the season moves forward.
Sept. 28 at Tempe: It was pretty clear 2011 was a lost cause when Apache Junction was beaten by the Buffaloes, a program that has struggled for the past several seasons. This is the type of game the Prospectors have won in the past, and they want to return to that level.
Oct. 19 at Combs: There aren’t very many easy games on the schedule, but Combs is a young program still trying to find its identity. This is a game Apache Junction should be able to win as long as it plays well.
The normally-stable Apache Junction football program has gone through its fair share of turbulence the past year. Justin MacDonald took over as coach before the 2011 season and brought in a new spread offense, turning a run-oriented team into one that passed the ball 92 percent of the time.
The results weren’t good, as the Prospectors struggled to a 2-8 record. Then this offseason, MacDonald resigned to spend more time with his family, and after a preliminary search for a replacement, longtime assistant Jeff Rathjen was named the interim coach.
Apache Junction had made its mark as a perennial playoff team in years prior, but it all came crashing down last year, and now the goal is to fix it.
“I was a part of the staff (when A.J. found success),” Rathjen said. “You need to reflect and sometimes we’re not quite sure exactly what happened. It’s complex when you go from seven years in a row making the playoffs to that. I don’t know what happened, but I will tell you this: That same core of kids we had last year, if you look at them right now, they’ve meshed as a team and they’re tight. Really tight. That experience has made them like this.”
A perfect storm of factors led to the down season. The Prospectors were very young across the board, integrating sophomore quarterback Brett Darling and several others with limited varsity experience. A small offensive line forced the schematic shift and the offensive players had a tough time learning their new responsibilities. The coaching switch brought more change, and Apache Junction never got it going.
Rathjen said this year’s team should be about 35 or 40 pounds heavier to a man across the offensive line. Darling is more comfortable and All-Section wide receiver Branden Edwards returns. The team will stick with the spread offense, and Rathjen said the players made strides during the summer to master the offense.
The defense is undersized but brings back experienced players that were thrown into the fire in 2011. Kegan Green may epitomize the group, a hard worker who makes up for his lack of size with determination.
“Pound-for-pound, he’s one of the top defensive linemen,” Rathjen said. “Problem is, he’s only 153 pounds. But he’s tough as a cinder block.”
Rathjen noted that there aren’t any quick fixes at Apache Junction because the school doesn’t get transfers. But on the flip side, the players that are there generally stick it out because the location makes it tougher to switch schools.
In fact, 17 players that took last year off decided to return, hoping to bring the Prospectors back to respectability.
“The part I didn’t expect was the immense pride I have found in our young men,” Rathjen said. “They’re rallying and building camaraderie. Teams to go camp to build teamship, but they had already accomplished that before they even got there, so we went to increase our football IQ and polish our technique. They talk to each other all the time about what they want to accomplish.”
Apache Junction lost its way in 2011. The players are hoping to prove that was a fluke.