Sept. 8, 2004 - Subtract one more from the declining population of Canyon del Oro athletics. Head baseball coach Keith Francis has left the Dorados to be an assistant coach at Pima Community College.
Francis made the announcement he was leaving Canyon del Oro early last week. He has coached the Dorados for the past five seasons, winning two 5A state championships.
"It was a difficult decision because I knew it was coming," Francis said of his choice to leave. The decision comes a year earlier than he had anticipated he said. He wasn't planning on returning to coach CDO after the 2005 season.
With CDO facing relocation from the 5A region down to 4A, Francis felt it was time to move on due to the decline in students and the timeliness of the job at PCC.
"I didn't want to play that 4A schedule," said Francis, "The timing was right, I figured I might as well do it."
Francis will head to Pima Community College's West Campus where he will take on multiple roles as head recruiter, infield coach and hitting instructor.
For the former CDO coach, adjusting to the collegiate game should pose no problems. In fact, Francis feels he fits the mold as more of a college coach than as a high school skipper. The job at CDO was his only coaching position on the high school level. Before taking over at CDO he was an assistant at Central Missouri State University and head coach at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Mo.
Talent has surrounded Francis at every coaching level. Whether it was slugger CJ Ziegler who cracked a CDO career record 31 home runs or major league baseball's Albert Pujols who played under Francis during the All-Star's only year at Maple Woods.
The arrival of the 55-year-old Francis at Pima fills the vacancy left by former head recruitment coach Victor Solis, who left the Aztecs to coach at Central Arizona College, coincidentally where Ziegler will play this season. According to Pima head coach Edger Soto, Francis will be the perfect match in the Aztecs "blue collar" approach to baseball.
"When the position came open he was the first one we called," said Soto of Francis. "I think he's exactly what we need. With his work ethic I think we'll get more out of our players."
Soto is familiar with Francis and the no nonsense attitude he brings to the diamond. Francis has been a regular at the Pima baseball camps and clinics, lending his time to teach fundamentals. For the past five years, Soto has kept in close contact with Francis in an attempt to lure the talented players of CDO to play at PCC. It may have worked out that Soto's recruiting process ultimately landed PCC a new coach.
The rush to fill the open spot for head coach at CDO will be taken care of by the end of the month, before the students have their fall break in October, CDO Athletic Director Ed Moody said.
Francis' replacement will be asked to continue a storied program, just as Francis was.
Under Francis' five-year tenure as head coach, besides being an annual contender for the state big-school championship, the baseball team has been ranked among the nation's elite programs by USAToday and other national prep baseball magazines. Former CDO players litter the ranks of major college programs, top-flight community colleges, the minor leagues and even major league baseball.
Next year will be no exception. Francis leaves behind a strong CDO squad that the coach said will challenge for the state title in its last season in 5A. Last year's squad became the first under Francis to go undefeated in region play, a feat that even his two state title squads did not accomplish.
According to Francis, assistant pitching coach Keith Laux will stay on at CDO to "preserve the continuity" of the program. The team may be in the hands of the assistants now, but if you ask Francis, any of his accomplishments as a coach were a direct result of his player's hard work. That is why they were the first to be told of the coach's decision to leave at a team meeting early last week.
"I told them I never threw a pitch, I never took an AB (at bat)," said Francis of the message he delivered to his team. "Everything is in place, now it's up to you."
"We were surprised at first," said CDO catcher Ryan Lush, "But when he told us that Pima had been after him for awhile, and he didn't want to play the 4A schedule, then we understood."
Francis' tough coaching methods will be missed the most, Lush said.
"He was great, but he demanded a lot," the junior Lush said, "but if you did what he asked, he was great to play for."
After seemingly retiring from coaching in 2000, Francis moved to Tucson to play golf and, as he put it, "basically do nothing." Before long he found himself helping out then CDO head coach Kent Winslow's varsity squad as an assistant.
When Winslow abruptly left the program in 2000, Francis stayed on, assuming the role of head coach. Francis went on to win the 5A state title that year. The other state title followed two years later in 2002. Francis ends his tenure with the Dorados with a 115-32 record.