Star columnist Greg Hansen breaks out the week in Southern Arizona sports, from UA football recruiting to high school basketball and why Arizona needs to honor a trailblazer in McKale Center.
Khalil Tate, once one of college football's most electrifying players, passed over for combine
If the NFL’s Draft rules were the same as those in the NBA, Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate would’ve been strongly tempted to leave the UA after the 2017 season and declare for the 2018 draft.
No quarterback in the 2017 college football season was as impressive and productive as Tate was in October victories over Colorado, UCLA, Cal and Washington State. Had Tate chosen to bypass his final two seasons at Arizona, I firmly believe he would’ve been selected among the first 100 players in the 2018 draft.
That’s because NFL scouts did not have enough of a book on Tate at the conclusion of the 2017 season. True, his production dropped in late-season games against Oregon, Purdue and Arizona State, a game in which he was injured. But he was the “it” quarterback in college football, 2017.
The subsequent NFL Combine of February 2018 invited 19 quarterbacks, from UCLA’s Josh Rosen and USC’s Sam Darnold to unknowns like Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta and Toledo’s Logan Woodside. Tate would’ve been a sure-thing invitee. His athleticism would’ve overcome unknown variables, questions about his late-season performances against Purdue and ASU.
But last week, after two head-shaking, losing seasons at Arizona, Tate was not among 337 players invited to this month’s NFL Combine, which includes 16 quarterbacks, among them sleepers like Kevin Davidson of Princeton and James Morgan of FIU.
What happened? One NFL Draft source — TheDraftNetwork.com — says that Tate doesn’t play within “the structure” of an offense and too often is flushed from the pocket and “slides into harm’s way instead of out of it.” The website said Tate is too quick to “bail on his read.”
Yes, yes and yes.
You don’t have to be the equivalent of a five-star recruit to get invited to the NFL Combine. In the last 12 years, marginal Arizona prospects Lionel Dotson, Wilrey Fontenot, Devin Ross, Adam Grant and Cayleb Jones received invitations.
The NFL scouting system is so thorough, turning over rocks at every conceivable school. In Arizona’s 2019 opener, a 45-38 loss at Hawaii, the Rainbow Warriors’ starting quarterback was junior Cole McDonald. He was benched late in that game after throwing four interceptions.
As Tate was bypassed, McDonald — who chose to skip his senior season at Hawaii — was invited to the combine.
Virgil Henderson returns to Cholla
Virgil Henderson was a standout running back at Catalina High School in 1987 who went on to play at Scottsdale Community College before spending six years in military service.
Upon his return to Tucson, he developed into one of the leading assistant coaches in Southern Arizona prep football. He was part of coaching staffs for state championship coaches Richard Sanchez at Sunnyside High School, Matt Johnson at both Ironwood Ridge High School and Mountain View High School, and Dennis Bene at Salpointe Catholic High School.
One thing about Henderson, he’s not afraid of a challenge. He is the new football coach at Cholla High School.
In 2013, Henderson accepted an interim position, late in the football calendar, to be the head coach at Rincon/University. The Rangers went 0-10.
That didn’t stop Henderson; he was then hired as the head coach at Cholla, which hasn’t experienced back-to-back winning seasons since 1983-84. Incredibly, Henderson coached Cholla to a 6-4 record in 2015, one of only two Cholla winning seasons this century.
Henderson left Cholla to coach under Johnson the last two years. Last week, he agreed to return to Cholla for a second term as the Chargers’ head coach.
“My vacation time is over,” said Henderson, 51, who met with about 60 Cholla players Wednesday. “I feel this is a good time; I thought I needed to go back and learn more and I was able to do that under Matt Johnson.”
Cholla went 2-8 last season and was outscored 350-181. It has cycled through 12 head coaches since the esteemed Ed Brown, the first black head football coach in Tucson prep history, left the school in 1987.
“I’m not afraid of the work,” said Henderson, who is a security officer in the TUSD system. “I love the game and have passion for it, and as I go back to Cholla I do so knowing how important establishing relationships with the kids has to be.”
Good for him. High school coaching here and everywhere can use men like Virgil Henderson, whose purpose isn’t strictly to win a championship but rather to help turn boys into men.
Sahuaro's Alyssa Brown sets scoring record
Sahuaro High School junior forward Alyssa Brown scored a school-record 45 points Thursday night against Casa Grande High School. It helped coach Steve Botkin’s team improve its record to 24-1 with one game remaining before the state playoffs.
What was impressive about Brown’s 45 points, said Botkin, “is that she usually only plays three quarters in a game.” Sahuaro has been so dominant that it has outscored opponents 1,662 to 917, thus Brown isn’t always needed in the fourth quarter.
“Alyssa is only 50 points away from 2,000 in her career,” said Botkin, who is likely to see Brown reach the 2,000 plateau before the season ends. That would put her in reach of former UA and Catalina Foothills High School guard Julie Brase Hairgrove’s state record of 2,913 points next season.
Brown has changed her game significantly while at Sahuaro. A year ago, scoring 702 points, she did not make a single 3-pointer. But after a ton of off-season work, Brown has made 30 3-pointers this season, making her a threat from anywhere on the court.
'Million Trees' initiative should include city golf courses
Tucson mayor Regina Romero and the City Council last week voted to create a position for a “Million Trees Coordinator,” a project that is aimed to combat the urban heat island effect and help make Tucson’s summer climate more forgiving. If you’ve ever driven the Tanque Verde Loop near Forty Niner Country Club on a hot day, you might notice that the thermometer on your car can drop six or seven degrees thanks to the beautiful forest of trees. It would be nice if the mayor’s “million trees” project includes a major re-planting project at the Randolph Golf Complex. In the last two or three years, more than 100 trees have been chopped down, most of them at the gorgeous Dell Urich Golf Course. None of them have been replaced. The loss of those trees — especially on the back nine — has robbed the course of much of its character, not to mention the strategic approach of the golfers. All of the trees chopped down were towering fortresses, some of them 70 to 80 years old. Surely out of a million trees, a few could be planted on the City of Tucson’s most profitable golf property.
Roman Bravo-Young stares down wrestling showdown
Sunnyside High School’s four-time and undefeated state wrestling champion, Roman Bravo-Young, climbed to No. 2 in the NCAA at 133 pounds last week. The timing was such that Bravo-Young was to meet No. 1 Seth Gross of Wisconsin on Friday night before a capacity at the Badgers’ facility. Gross won a heated match, 6-5, although Bravo-Young appeared to successfully execute a match-winning takedown in the last 10 seconds of the match. However, officials ruled otherwise. At 14-1, Bravo-Young is likely to get a rematch with Gross in the Big Ten championships next month.
Salpointe, Catalina Foothills remain on collision course for state title
I made a rookie mistake Friday night, arriving at the basketball showdown between 22-1 Catalina Foothills High School and 25-1 Salpointe Catholic High School about 30 minutes before tipoff. Parking was a problem. By the time I walked to the entry of Kalil Gymnasium the small facility was jammed and overflowing. The game was sold out. It reminded me of the “good old days” of high school basketball when an anticipated showdown between teams like Salpointe and Foothills required you to arrive at the gym early in the JV game to make sure you could get a seat. Anyway, Foothills led 37-32 with six minutes remaining Friday. I finally squeezed in to watch Salpointe coach Jim Reynolds employ a hold-the-ball, delay game in the final three minutes of the Lancers’ win, forcing Foothills coach Doug D’Amore’s team to foul. There is no shot clock in high school basketball; old-school strategy thrives in close games. If Foothills and Salpointe meet in the Class 4A state playoffs — possibly for the state title later this month — D’Amore is likely to have Hayden Moser, a top player who was out again Friday with an injury, back in the lineup.
Lancers' signing class ranks with best in local history
Salpointe Catholic High School’s football Class of 2020 rivals that of Tucson High’s Class of 1970 and 1971, producing more college-level football prospects than any in Southern Arizona history. Salpointe’s three-season record of 35-4 was headlined by Texas-bound Bijan Robinson and Ohio State signee Lathan Ransom, but many others, including linebacker Trent Strong, were irreplaceable parts of that success. Last week, Strong accepted a scholarship offer from SMU coach Sonny Dykes, a former Arizona offensive coordinator. It meant two things: first, Strong will be playing for one of the most respected people — a man who treats players the way you’d want your son to be treated — in college football. Second, it will carry on a family legacy of athletic success. Trent’s father, former Sabino High School safety and baseball star Steve Strong, was part of the 1982 All-MetroCity team with future USC quarterback Rodney Peete of Sahuaro. Steve Strong accepted a scholarship to play baseball at Arizona, where he became the All-Pac-10 catcher in 1986 and 1987, hitting .396 for the UA’s 1986 College World Series champions. Trent Strong made 209 tackles in his Salpointe career. Like father, like son.
Top recruits shut Wildcats out
Pac-12 football programs signed 57 combined five- and four-star recruits this year. Arizona? None. The UA’s football recruiting under Rich Rodriguez and Kevin Sumlin has been so unproductive since the school won the 2014 Pac-12 South Division that it could take three or four years — under the best of circumstances — for the Wildcats to be a factor again. The only thing worse in Pac-12 football than Arizona’s recruiting class of 2020 last week was the news that Colorado coach Mel Tucker is expected to be interviewed for the vacant coaching job at Michigan State. If Tucker leaves CU after one season, aborting much of the progress the Buffaloes have made, it might be Arizona’s only chance to get out of the South Division cellar next season.
Star senior tennis player Norma Higuera Laguna dies at 78
In 1960, Tucson High senior Norma Higuera Laguna finished second in the state doubles finals, helping coach Sue Clark’s team to the first of 10 state championships and a 213-match winning streak. She died Jan. 16 in Green Valley. She was 78. Laguna, whose brother, Ron Higuera, was a three-year starting lineman for Arizona’s football team 1965-67, is viewed as one of the leading women’s tennis players in Tucson history. She won the USTA 55-over doubles championship in Houston in 1988, and as recently as 2007 was ranked No. 2 in the USTA 60-over women’s doubles. A celebration of Norma’s life was held last month.
My two cents: Time to honor former AD Cedric Dempsey in McKale Center
Arizona graduate Mark Harlan, now the athletic director at Utah, honored his predecessor at Saturday’s Utah-Cal basketball game, hanging a banner in the rafters of the Huntsman Center to honor former Utah AD Chris Hill.
Hill spent 31 years as Utah’s AD, overseeing the school’s rise to power in football, being on-site as the Utes reached the 1998 Final Four and, most impressively, gaining admittance to the Pac-12 in 2011.
By comparison, Arizona has been slow to properly honor the work of former UA athletic director Cedric Dempsey, the man most responsible for Arizona’s move to prominence, 1983-93, before becoming executive director of the NCAA.
The UA has permanent displays to honor Dempsey’s top assistant ADs, Rocky LaRose and Mary Roby, and it’s overdue that Dempsey, 87, is honored for his work in Tucson.
Dempsey hired Lute Olson, Mike Candrea, Frank Busch, Dick Tomey and Joan Bonvicini, five Hall of Fame coaches. He ended Arizona’s years of running a budget deficit, rescued the football program from an NCAA probation, served as chairman of the NCAA basketball selection committee, and, by the time he left to run the NCAA, had Arizona in the top 10 in the annual Sears Cup competition, symbolic of the nation’s 10 leading athletic departments.
Under Dempsey, all things seemed possible for UA sports, a decade-long run that were surely the glory days of Wildcat sports.
The UA displays the names of one-and-done basketball players like Stanley Johnson and Jerryd Bayless at McKale Center. Isn’t it time to make room for Ced Dempsey, too?
Contact sports columnist Greg Hansen at 520-573-4362 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @ghansen711