Aug. 11, 2004 - The 2004 high school football season got underway Aug. 2 throughout the Tucson metro area as local teams hit the practice field for the first time since last fall. The new year for Marana High School's embattled program brings a new coach, new players and most of all, a new hope.
First year head coach Willie Dudley takes over the reins of a Tiger team that managed to claw out just one win last season, finishing the 2003 campaign with a dismal 1-9 record. A mere four days into Marana's training camp, and the Dudley difference has already started to make a noticeable impression on the young squad. As the team suited up for its first day of practice in full pads Aug. 5, Dudley's long task of rebuilding Marana football had only just begun.
"We're fixing everything from last year," said senior Tony Lopez, one of just four players returning for his senior season. Lopez already sees the difference in the detailed layout of plays, fresh ideas and most importantly, the attention to teaching fundamentals. "We had no depth last year."
As the first day in full pads unfolded, Dudley's retooling began simply with the basics. First up, learning the proper way to tackle. Due to the 100 degree heat baking the earth outside, the new Marana physical education teacher's lesson plan would have to be kept on the upper concourse of the basketball gym. It was there the journeyman coach preached the most important message in taking down a defender and probably the most appropriate motto the Tigers could adopt for the upcoming season. One by one as his players took turns charging through a tackling dummy, Dudley's words echoed off the surrounding cement walls of the gym.
"Eyes to the skies!" which is a reference to the direction a tackled player will be looking after being taken down by a Tiger.
It shouldn't be hard for the team that spent the majority of 2003 looking up at its opponents in the Sonoran Region to keep its eyes to the skies. In a little under a week of practice, the players are already starting to buy into Dudley's hard-nosed coaching philosophy and even tougher workouts.
"The plays are better," said sophomore wide receiver, Andrew Weissmuller of the difference between Dudley and former head coach Anthony Coronado. "He works us harder."
With the exception of the graduated seniors, Marana returns with the same core of players, albeit a young core with its work cut out for them.
"We're going through some hurdles right now," said Ramon Gallegos, a sophomore tackle who spent time between varsity and junior varsity last season. "But it's getting better."
Of the estimated 36 players who reported to camp early, 10 are juniors, 12 are sophomores and 10 are freshman. Enthusiasm may be up, but the roster's size still remains down.
"The numbers are not as high as we would like but the attitude is good," said assistant coach Mike Maes. Maes and Mark Eggleston, coaches for the freshman team, expect a big turnout from the incoming class. Historically a freshman team will average anywhere between 40 to 45 players, numbers Dudley would like to see on both his varsity and junior varsity squads.
Adding additional players still remains a possibility, but Dudley didn't expect those numbers to rise when school started Aug. 10. For now Marana will be forced to put a very young team on the field when it opens its season Aug. 29 at Amphitheater High School.
"Down the road they are going to get experience," said Dudley of the learning curve his players face this season.
Even with the attitudes on the rise, both players and coaches dismiss the rumors of a player revolt that allegedly took place midway through last season.
"If kids left early it was because of personal reasons and not because of the coach," said Maes.
Chris Slape insists the core of the team has stuck together through thick and mostly thin. The senior takes a different perspective of any players who may have defected under Coronado's regime.
"It's mostly the same kids that came back," said Slape, whom teammates refer to as "Slim." "Those that left, we didn't like anyway."