Cienega High School opened in the summer of 2001 with a bunch of ninth-graders and an ongoing construction project that limited students, staff and visitors to 68 parking spaces.
It was so remote that its address — 12901 East Colossal Cave Road — suggested the next freeway exit would say “Welcome to New Mexico.”
All these years later, any sign leading to Cienega should read “Big Game Ahead.”
Principal Nemer Hassey, who put the school’s football program on the map with 116 victories in 13 seasons, said Monday there are far more than 68 parking spaces at the school now.
The undefeated Bobcats have 3,500 available seats for Thursday’s game against undefeated Salpointe Catholic, but that can be misleading.
“We’ve had 5,000 before,” Hassey said. “Standing room only.”
Ever since Arizona’s football program went off the tracks, Tucsonans have been pining for a Big Game. This is it. These are Tucson’s two power programs; since Cienega was founded, Salpointe has won 146 games, Cienega 137. Only Sabino, which has been bumped down to Class 3A, can compare with 145.
This is no accident, no we-finally-got-a-good-bunch-of-kids stroke of fortune. This Game of the Year, with Tucson’s two most high-profile playmakers, Cienega quarterback Jamarye Joiner and Salpointe running back Bijan Robinson, planted its seeds more than 50 years ago
Follow the football genes along:
In November, 1964, undefeated Marana High won the state championship with a lot of help from senior running back Cleo Robinson. As Marana opened 5-0, winning by scores of 47-7, 30-0, 26-7, 33-0 and 33-6, Robinson rushed for 367 yards, including 132 in a blowout over Hayden High.
Robinson, who was one of Tucson’s leading sprinters/hurdlers/long jumpers in history, is Bijan’s grandfather.
In September 1974, Tucson High running back John Joiner opened a big victory over Sahuaro with a 60-yard touchdown run. He gained 158 in the game and was named to the All-City team.
Joiner, who was a 23-foot long-jumper at THS, is Jamarye’s grandfather.
There’s more: In September 1983, Salpointe senior quarterback Dennis Bene passed for 425 yards against Sahuaro, then the second-highest total in Tucson history. Bene was ultimately selected Tucson’s all-city quarterback of ’83.
After playing football at Scottsdale Community College and for Northwest Missouri State — after graduating from veterinary school and working as a horse doctor in Kansas, Missouri and Nevada — Bene moved back to Tucson and taught anatomy and physiology at his alma mater.
In 2001 he became the Lancers’ head football coach. Salpointe has since averaged 9½ victories per season. It won the state title in 2013.
In August 1986, Pat Nugent, the son of a high school football coach from Rye, N.Y., and the nephew of the former head coach at Florida State, eschewed a chance to play Division III football in Pennsylvania and enrolled at Arizona.
Nugent became a student manager first for Larry Smith and later Dick Tomey.
Upon graduation, Nugent got a job at Flowing Wells High, where he helped coach the football team for three years.
By 1997, he was promoted, becoming the Caballeros’ head coach. It was what those in the business call a good hire. Nugent has since coached at CDO and Pima College and he’s 17-1 his last year and a half at Cienega.
In all of that time, Nugent has coached 130 winning football games, twice reaching the state championship game.
Thursday’s showdown, Bene vs. Nugent, Salpointe vs. Cienega, will be a lot like a 1980s game when Vern Friedli of Amphi coached against Howard Breinig of Sahuaro.
Parking places will be coveted.
As far back as Bene’s second start as a Salpointe junior, 1982, he learned what it was to play in a Big Game. Facing powerhouse Sunnyside on a night the Blue Devils drew an estimated 6,000 fans. Bene was sacked five times. Neither team scored. It would get better.
In Bene’s first game as Salpointe’s coach, Aug. 31, 2001, he was pitted against Phoenix juggernaut Desert Mountain. The Lancers won 16-0 and finished 8-2.
“My statement is, when I’m done, people will talk about Salpointe football,” Bene said then.
People are talking, and he’s not yet done.
Nugent’s first game as a head coach, Sept. 5, 1997, was against, of all teams, Salpointe.
Even though the Lancers won 21-16, Nugent was on to something good. Flowing Wells finished 8-3 and made the state playoffs.
On Thursday, 65 days before the state championship games will be played at Arizona Stadium, Salpointe and Cienega will stage a full-on rehearsal of what it’s like to stage a Big Game.
Don’t be late.