Roy Lopez knows how fortunate he is.
He’s made hundreds of memories and countless friends during a 20-year coaching career. His résumé is impressive: graduate assistant at the University of New Mexico; defensive line coach for a state champion, Phoenix St. Mary’s High School; 19 years at Tempe Marcos de Niza, 10 of them spent as head coach; and an assistant’s gig at Gilbert Mesquite.
“I’ve been lucky,” Lopez said. “I’ve been lucky that I’ve been around people who actually think I’m worth a crap.”
Now, he’ll try to steward Sunnyside. The Blue Devils endured a 4-6 record — abysmal by their high standards — in Lopez’s first season. They should be better this season.
Sunnyside will begin finding out just how much it has improved on Thursday, when it hosts Nogales in the first high school football game of the season in Southern Arizona. The game kicks off at 7 p.m.
“Last year it was a lot of up and down,” Lopez said, “but this year we have a little more stability.”
The 2016 season — and the year in general — was forgettable. Coach Glenn Posey quit in January to become an assistant at Pima College. Sunnyside moved quickly, hiring former Nogales coach Kevin Kuhm to run the program. Kuhm, 28 at the time, promised to build the right way.
“I don’t want to make a move and, in two years, look for another job,” Kuhm said at the time.
Kuhm lasted two months before leaving to become the athletic director and head coach back at Nogales.
Sunnyside’s second coaching search lasted into June, when Lopez was tabbed to carry on the tradition at “the pride of the south side.”
A piece of the Blue Devils’ past can take some of the credit. Richard Sanchez saw Lopez at a summer wrestling tournament, and pitched the veteran coach on moving to Tucson. Sanchez knew Sunnyside’s potential more than anybody: He went 50-5 between 2000-2003, making four state championship appearances and winning two titles.
Lopez took Sanchez’s words to heart, even though he knew 2016 would be chaotic. The Blue Devils had just two weeks to prepare for last year’s opener, a loss to Nogales.
The 4-6 record was ugly, but progress was made.
First, Lopez convinced Sunnyside School District superintendent Steve Holmes to build a new weight room.
“It was a long time coming,” he said. “The equipment that we had, it was like going back to the ’70s and ’80s, but now the kids love coming in. … It’s really helped with participation and numbers. We still sweat, bleed, cry and still try to get the old-school grind out of them.”
Second order of business: establish a new foundation while honoring the past.
Lopez hired 20-year-old Anthony Peralta, Sanchez’s nephew, as defensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach.
“A bunch of the guys from the 2001 (state championship team), they practically raised me,” Peralta said. “I was always around football here, whether it was watching film or in the weight room or on the field. Not many kids had that opportunity.”
Third order of business: win eight or more games and reach a milestone.
Lopez enters Thursday’s opener with a 92-26 record, putting him eight away from the 100-win mark. Lopez said he was unaware of the wins total until last winter, when his son, New Mexico State sophomore defensive lineman Roy Lopez III, did the math.
“I knew I was in the 20-30 loss zone — you never keep track of the wins, but you always know your losses,” Lopez said. “I truly try not to think about that stuff. I’m not big on wins and losses, but of course society likes to judge us on that.”
The Blue Devils won’t have it easy. Salpointe Catholic, Mountain View and Tucson all loom on their schedule, and those teams outscored Sunnyside 125-32 in last year’s meetings.
Still, players and coaches are confident the team can put together a winning year.
“Expectations are a lot higher than last year,” outside linebacker Andrew Peralta said. “We have an awesome team this year. We’ve gotten a lot stronger than last year and we’re ready to compete.”
Lopez has hopes to take Sunnyside back to state-wide prominence, but even he knows to slow down and enjoy every second. He uses the same word, again.
“I like it here,” he said. “I’m just lucky, man.”