Down-down, set-set, hike-hike.
No, everything does not come in twos for the Rincon-University football program. It just feels like it.
There may be no stranger setup in all of Arizona: Two high schools, two distinctly separate student bodies and faculties, operating under the same roof, joining into one athletic program.
University on the first floor, Rincon on the second.
And if you haven’t heard much about the Rangers, it’s because they haven’t deserved much ink the last three years — just three combined wins.
Under new head coach Cody House — the Cody House who starred at Cholla a decade ago — they have three wins this year already. More importantly, they’ve found a voice.
It sounds like harmony.
• • •
To understand the setup, go back to the beginning.
University High School was formed in 1976 as Special Projects High School, a by-application school for gifted students. Originally housed at Tucson High, enrollment was small. They moved to Rincon High in 1985 as Rincon’s own enrollment numbers sagged. Now, Uni principal Amy Cislak says, the school is bustling, up to roughly 1,100 students, about the same as Rincon.
The populations contrast: Uni High is considered one of the best academic high schools in the country, ranked No. 7 nationally in 2014, according to US News and World Report. Some of the parents are wealthy, most are comfortable. Rincon is an average academic school, with a diverse base of students, many of whom come from below-average means.
“You’ve got kids playing on the field from the Ivory Coast, who are playing their first year of football this year, and you have some other kids whose dads are doctors,” House said.
House left Santa Rita High in 2014 after just one season, his first as a high school head coach in Tucson. When the former Cholla star quarterback pursued this gig, the main thing he sought was a commitment to football. After winning zero, two and one football games the last three years under three different coaches, it was clear that both Rincon and University were ready for a change.
When House was hired in February, his first task was to figure out how to better incorporate the two factions.
In short: It’s not about finding plays to run; it’s about finding players to run through walls for one another.
“When you take over a struggling program, you have expectations — everyone thinks it’s X’s and O’s, we have to run this system,” House said. “No one ever tells you when you get the job that you’ll get into the summer and one kid will say I have to baby-sit my baby brother for three days, and another kid on the other side says he has to leave for leadership conference for a week. You have these two spectrums, and as a coach, you’re juggling both.”
Though he is from Tucson, House said he had only a cursory understanding of the situation at Rincon/University when he pursued the position. He knew there were two schools playing under one banner, but he didn’t realize they played under one building.
He spoke with softball coach Dean Misenhimer, whose progress has been tangible with his program, about how to survive in such a curious scenario.
“One of the first things he said was you have to reach out to UHS,” House said. “You will not be successful unless you embrace the other side. It’s a death trap. You go out there and say we’re the Rincon Rangers and forget the Uni, and you’re done. You’re alienating half of school population.”
The brass tacks of it is: If Rincon-University actually wants compete against the bad boys of Arizona’s 6A high school football level, it’s going to need buy in from both sides. As it stands, the team is already one of the smallest at the level, and quite truthfully, if each school were to field a team of its own, neither would be higher than about 3A. Right now, the Rangers varsity team has about 30 players, and roughly 70 percent come from the Rincon side.
“Definitely the goal is 50/50, and I keep hearing that the athletes are at Rincon and the country club kids are at UHS,” House said. “But UHS is an untapped resource. It’s our biggest ally. We can’t play a 6A schedule without having 6A numbers. We have to pull max from both.”
In an era of dwindling football participation, particularly at the high school level, never has that been more apparent.
“You have to have buy in, stick the nose to the grindstone,” House said. “I’m not a smooth talker, can’t have people just believe everything I say. I’m not a used-car salesman. I show you my value, and it’s hard when your recruiting pitch is ‘I promise you we won’t suck!’”
• • •
For the first quarter of the season, that promise went unfulfilled.
Margin of defeat in an 0-3 start against the likes of Pueblo, Dobson and Mountain View: 137-7.
Same old, same old, another bad start, another whatever finish, and who knows if House would be around for Year 2.
And then, enter Ty Grigsby. Enter Grisgby left, enter Grigsby right, enter Grigsby up the middle, around and over the Buena Colts. Grigsby had eight touchdowns in Week 4 as House’s run-first offense started to build momentum and grind it out.
The following week, a 35-34 overtime loss at Rio Rico that, House said, taught his team some lessons.
Lessons learned: Leading up to Friday’s matchup with Sunnyside High, the Rangers defeated Palo Verde and Santa Rita the last two weeks by a combined score of 100-26; against Santa Rita, Grigsby had six more scores.
House sees the change happening right before his eyes.
“We’ve got a good group of younger kids who you’d never guess went to different schools,” he said. “The camaraderie is better, and getting better. I wouldn’t say it’s Remember the Titans, but the bonding has improved, and a lot of guys are seeing their efforts are paying off.
“The buy-in — we’re getting a lot more buy-in. That’s natural, it’s organic. I can’t give out a fire-and-brimstone speech every week, but if you’re out there working side by side with a guy for the last seven months, you’re going to care about him.”
By now, everyone agrees, this is just the status quo. With relations improving on the football field — the wins are a big reason why —it doesn’t feel like a Movie of the Week.
“It’s really normal, and a lot of people assume we’re dealing with polar opposites,” University High principal Cislak said.
“I haven’t found that. Our curriculum is different, but the students are great kids who have a lot of pride in their schools. It’s never felt like an us versus them thing.”
For the players themselves, it’s routine.
“Overall we’re pretty tight,” said linebacker/wide receiver Zion Noperi, who attends Rincon. “We actually get to bond with two high schools. We unite through sports. It’s really not that weird. It’s really basic to be honest.”
Added linebacker/guard Andy Harris, who attends Uni: “There have been divisions, but we’ve kind of shot those down and become pretty close. There isn’t a difference between us.”
Everyone involved makes it clear: This is not “West Side Story” in Tucson. All sports teams are made up of kids from both schools; clubs, activities and fine-arts programs, as well. Both schools are proud of the diversity that the campus boasts.
“We have some students who will go to the best universities not only in the country, but globally, and they sit in the same cafeteria, right next to a kid who is just coming from Somalia, trying to learn English,” Rincon assistant principal Pablo Madrid said.
Ultimately, they agree on one thing: They just want a football team to be proud of.
“This is the first time in five years I’ve seen 60 young men between the two levels in the weight room all summer,” Cislak said.
“First time we’ve had a passing league team, as silly as it sounds. That matters. I’m just so appreciative that excuses aren’t being made for why we can’t be good anymore.
“For the first time, I have kids coming up to me saying we can win.”