As Justin Argraves walked off Tucson High’s football field last Thursday evening, something gnawed at him. More than one something.
The Badgers didn’t have that much energy, he felt, certainly not what you’d expect the day before they had the chance to exorcise two-plus decades worth of demons against Salpointe Catholic.
Argraves turned to his offensive line coach Richard Fimbres, and he wondered aloud: Were we just flat, or were we just focused?
“There wasn’t any hooting and hollering, it was like a hard middle ground,” Argraves said. “Then Coach said to me, ‘They’re not flat, they’re locked in,’ and I knew.”
He’s no psychic, but any good high school football coach who doesn’t have two fingers crossed behind his back will tell you he knows a win is coming much earlier than Friday night. A loss, too, for that matter. Success does not begin at kickoff, and quite frankly, it doesn’t even end at the final flash of the quadruple zeros on the scoreboard.
So Argraves, whose team has another stiff test this week with visiting Mountain View, didn’t predict the Badgers’ first win over Salpointe since 1993, a 14-3 victory last Friday. More accurately, he saw it developing from scratch.
It started back on Saturday, Sept. 3, around 8 a.m., when the Badgers crawled into the film room, wiping the crust from their eyes, ready to relive their 38-14 loss to Mesa Desert Ridge from a night earlier.
The coaches identified mistakes, the players had to cope with their errors, but after one look, it was on to the Lancers. Argraves dismissed the kids into quick individual meetings, a group of coaches took off to bring back some Tania’s breakfast burritos, and the staff buckled in around noon.
Time to spot Salpointe’s weaknesses. There weren’t many.
“When we first watch film, I look for the flow of the game; I really don’t dive into breaking it down,” Argraves said. “Once we get the flow of the game, we’ll pop in the second game, see if they match up with our first opinion, and that’s when we break down formations, down and distance.”
Argraves could see it clearly: Mission No. 1: Stop the Lancers’ potent running game.
He felt a calm, though.
“We saw a lot of similarities in terms of what Desert Ridge runs, so we felt a little bit more comfortable about matchups,” he said. “In the past, we’ve struggled with their physical style of play.”
This year, he was not going to let that happen, and come the fourth quarter on Friday, that would prove true.
Only on Monday, his guys were not all that physical.
How could they be on Labor Day?
After Sunday’s day off, Argraves shifted Monday’s practice to the morning so that kids could spend most of the day with their families. The result was a lot of yawns.
“We get into habits and routines, and when you change it, their clocks are used to going at a certain time,” he said. “To be honest, it wasn’t the best practice. We kind of expected it. It was a little flat. Kids were out of it.”
Tuesday, though, the Badgers found their rhythm.
The players got off to a good start that morning, getting in a film session from 7 a.m. to around 8, then with their morning workout class that they have weekly on Tuesdays and Thursday.
Argraves hangs around the weight room until around 1 for his job as a body conditioning teacher, then he’s free to retire to his office. He’ll sneak in some homework — Argraves is pulling quadruple duty this year with a pregnant wife, a football team, a teaching gig and his own master’s course — and practice begins at 4 p.m..
“It was a crisp practice — we didn’t come in with a complex game plan, so the big thing was stressing discipline,” Argraves said. “We were undisciplined against Desert Ridge and we knew to beat Salpointe we had to play close to perfect.”
On Wednesday, Argraves turned up the heat.
He’d tried to downplay the Badgers’ long drought against the Lancers earlier in the week, telling his kids that it’s just any other game. He knew it wasn’t true. They knew it wasn’t true.
“Wednesday I played it up a little more than I have in the past,” Argraves said. “I turned the volume up. I said guys, this is a big game. I’m not going to lie, not going to beat around the bush. We have the chance to beat them for the first time in 20-plus years. It wasn’t a rah-rah speech — it was point blank, direct. Here are my expectations, and here’s what we need to do. Everybody was locked in.”
And then, Thursday.
A simple walk-through, and crickets. His team was quiet throughout practice, and even with Finbres’ reassurance, he said, “I was a little nervous.”
He didn’t just mean about Friday’s game.
His father, Mike, the girl’s basketball coach at Santa Rita High School, was scheduled for lung surgery on Friday morning.
Normally Argraves releases the kids on Thursday nights after team dinner and then goes and grabs dinner alone with his wife, Lindsey. This day, though, his parents joined them.
The next morning, surgery was scheduled, and Argraves told his players and staff to prepare to leave for Salpointe without him.
Argraves sat at the hospital all day. Surgery was pushed back to 1 p.m., and deemed a success at 4 p.m. The cancer that Argraves so valiantly fought was believed to be gone, though he’d have complications this week and would require a further hospital stay.
Argraves called offensive coordinator Ovean Moore and said if he was not there by 4:30 p.m. to just take off. Just in time, though, he called back. He’d be there by 4:40. He made the bus, the kids cheered. When they went through walk-through, Argraves saw the look again.
“Locked in,” he said, “and when you see it two days in a row, it’s good news.”
Tucson dominated Salpointe up front, held strong on a fourth-quarter, four-down stand inside the 5-yard line, and played out the clock.
“That game to me seemed like the longest game in the world,” Argraves said. “The clock couldn’t get to zero fast enough. It felt like such a prize fight. The whole day, being at the hospital, I was mentally drained. But I shook Coach (Dennis) Bene’s hand — and I have the utmost respect for him — and to play a team like Salpointe and come up with a victory is pretty sweet.”
Sweet enough to savor.
For eight hours, anyway.
He was back the next morning at 6:15.
“We tell our kids gotta enjoy it that evening, but my mind’s already gone,” Argraves said. “It makes waking up the next morning a lot easier, but we were already talking about the next game. Get the film up. What do we have next week?”