Prospector pride: Apache Junction football makes stark improvements under Vance Miller

The Apache Junction High School football team scrimmages against Desert Mountain High School Thursday, Aug. 9 in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Evolution has come quick for the Apache Junction High School football team.

It wasn’t that long ago that many considered the Prospectors to be an easy game on their schedule, but it appears that’s no longer the case.

AJHS recently secured a 4A Black Canyon Region title, a back-to-back accomplishment, and hasn’t lost a region game since Oct. 21, 2016, a 40-36 defeat at the hands of Scottsdale’s Coronado High School. Apache Junction also recorded an upset 53-52 win this year over then top-ranked Glendale High School.

This put the Prospectors in the 4A playoffs for the second consecutive year, giving them their best regular season (7-3) since 2009.

All this is a far cry from a few years ago when AJHS was finishing with one or two wins and opponents were scheduling the Prospectors for homecoming, hoping for an easy win.

Linebackers Coach Rod Reid has been with the Apache Junction School District since 2006 and has seen the most recent change of the team, calling the growth “flabbergasting.”

“I think the whole culture has changed,” Coach Reid said. “The school supports us, kids are proud to walk around with their AJ stuff on now, where before they used to be made fun of.”

Dark Days

In 2011, the Prospectors went 2-8 and followed that season up with a 1-9 campaign. This put the program into a flux of numerous coaching changes, four different coaches from 2010-14, according to maxpreps.com.

The Apache Junction High School football team scrimmages against Desert Mountain High School Thursday, Aug. 9 in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

AJHS had winning seasons during the 2000s up until 2009 but didn’t see another one until 2017. From 2010-16, the team went 23-48, reaching .500 once.

But tough times weren’t only reserved for the scoreboard. Freshman Offensive Coordinator Brett Darling, AJHS class of 2014, said coaching inconsistency hurt the team during those years and brought about low morale.

“When I was here, it was one of the toughest times to be an Apache Junction Prospector,” Darling said. “Although I loved the game and had fun with playing football, it was hard when you had no school backing you because you are not that good.”

At school, Coach Darling said, players would get teased for their lack of success on the field. For away games, players would wear Apache Junction ties to school and Coach Reid said there were times other students would cut those ties off of players or a player would get in a fight over perceived disrespect.

Attendance was also low, Coach Darling said, as parents and few students would attend the games during that stretch.

Freshman/Junior Varsity Wide Receiver and Defensive Backs Coach Patrick Benavidez, AJHS class of 2015, said coaches didn’t seem to care too much during that time, leaving some kids, like himself, in the dark on how many wins the Prospectors needed to make the playoffs or who was in the region.

“It’s great now,” he said. “Our coaches, they all care. Across the board, our coaching staff as changed so much and I love to see it. Every single coach cares so much more than any coach that I had when I was here.”

Miller time

Head Coach Vance Miller joined the coaching staff in 2013 as defensive coordinator. A year later, he became the head coach and Coach Benavidez, who was a senior at the time, said everything changed.

The Apache Junction High School football team scrimmages against Desert Mountain High School Thursday, Aug. 9 in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The constantly shifting coaches, Coach Miller said, made for a tough time getting momentum built up. Despite his commitment to the program, Coach Miller said he still had to wait a bit for his players to believe that because of past experiences.

“It took a few years of that proof that I was here, I wasn’t going anywhere,” he said. “I didn’t come here for a year just as a stepping stone to go somewhere else. That made the difference.”

With the changing leadership, Coach Miller said he learned that his players weren’t “football smart” because no one took the time to teach them the nuances of the game. Once he helped them learn the game, he said the rate of progress was “two-fold.”

Coach Miller describes himself as authoritative while Coach Reid called his personality type-A with a big presence.

From the get-go, Coach Miller made his intentions clear. He told his players, “either you’re in or you’re out.” He likened himself to a bus driver who was going to take them to success and the players needed to decide to be on or off the proverbial bus.

It took a few years for that success to manifest itself. Once the older players understood what it took to win, Coach Miller said, they could then pass that knowledge on to the younger players, creating a loop for the future.

“(The change in attitude) was extremely hard because they weren’t used to it,” Coach Miller said. “They weren’t used to my personality.”

That new personality didn’t fail to make impressions on the players, though. Junior quarterback Gibson Limongello described Coach Miller as a “hard-working coach” who “leads by example every day.” He does this, Limongello said, by showing his dedication to the players.

Senior running back William Lohman, who rushed for 1,236 yards and 22 touchdowns in the regular season, said he knows Coach Miller is always there for the team and is fully invested in making the players better.

In showing that investment, Coach Reid said Coach Miller will plan out a season three months before it even begins. That results in calendars laying out what will happen during the upcoming month.

“Organization, he’s unbelievable,” Coach Reid said. “Probably the most organized head coach I’ve worked with in 29 years of coaching, by far.”

The Apache Junction High School football team scrimmages against Desert Mountain High School Thursday, Aug. 9 in Scottsdale. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

Prospector pride

With the newfound success has come a new sense of pride at the school and in the community.

“Now, we’re in a position where these kids walk around campus with their chests out and their heads up high and football is recognized,” Coach Miller said. “Our community support is great. People are filling the stands.”

For the players, Lohman said he takes pride in what he and others have done to make the program better.

“I feel really accomplished because we made the program better,” he said. “People are finally looking at us. It was never like that.”

The recent success hasn’t only left its mark on the football program but the community, school and alumni as well.
Coach Benavidez said he’s had former teammates start to express their pride for playing at Apache Junction, despite struggles on the field.

This stands in stark contrast, Coach Benavidez said, to what happened when he played. He said back then, nobody believed them when players would say they were going to win. Now when the players say that, the community rallies behind and cheers them on.

Prominently featured on the Apache Junction High School website is a picture of the football team with the banner “Go Prospectors!” emblazoned across the top.

Furthermore, Coach Benavidez said his mother works in a place where sports is celebrated and on Fridays, she wears his old jersey, doing so with pride.

“It’s just so cool to see my friends and my family change their opinions about the place,” he said.

Coach Miller doesn’t plan on letting the success stop here. He said the key to keeping the success going is getting his players involved in lower-level football, such as visiting the team at Cactus Canyon Junior High School.

He also has combined the lower levels of freshmen and JV with the varsity in practices to get them experience with the varsity players and systems.

While the Prospectors entered the 2018 playoffs as the No. 16 seed, four spots behind Glendale, despite AJHS winning the region, Coach Miller said it doesn’t bother him because the team is in the playoffs.

Making the playoffs is a new aspect for the football community, a new “culture and feeling.” He knows the Prospectors have a tough task ahead of them against No. 1 Salpointe Catholic High School but he knows his team won’t lack in effort.

That’s how it’s been throughout the past few seasons and the team has done well for itself so far.

“We’re not ‘just AJ’ anymore,” Coach Darling said. “We’re a name to be reckoned with.”

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