Richard Sanchez is sitting at his desk when a student walks in with a request.
“Can I grab a water bottle?” he asks.
Sanchez spins around, opens a mini-fridge with one hand and shovels a bottle to the grateful student. It’s 110 degrees out, and hydration is important. Ice-cold water bottles are free to anyone who stops by to see Sanchez, Santa Rita High School’s dean of students and, as of this summer, the Eagles’ first-year football coach.
The desire to help students is one of the reasons why Sanchez, one of the top coaches in Arizona high school football history, is coming out of semi-retirement to coach a Class 2A football program that recently seemed on the brink of extinction. He had initially volunteered to assist whichever coach Santa Rita hired; when the school couldn’t find the right candidate, Sanchez — who went 157-59 at Sunnyside High School from 1994-2010 — stepped in.
His motivation has almost nothing to do with adding to his win total.
“I’m excited,” he said, “about the opportunity to work with these kids.”
Sanchez was more than a coach to Anthony Ybarra. He was a father figure.
Ybarra’s father and uncles wrestled under Sanchez at Sunnyside in the 1980s. Ybarra played on Sanchez’s football teams from 1997-2000, and the two have remained close since.
Sanchez attended Ybarra’s wedding four years ago. The coach attends every one of Ybarra’s son’s birthday parties.
Such is the relationship between the football coach and his former players, many of whom still live and work in south Tucson. Six of Sanchez’s former Sunnyside players, including Ybarra, are assistants at nearby Desert View High School. Just last week, Ybarra and 30 other ex-Blue Devils got together to celebrate a birthday.
Sanchez, their old coach, was there.
“The stuff that coach does for us on the field is tremendous, but what he does for us off the field — people never even know. People never even see,” Ybarra said. “He cares for every single one of us like if we were his own kid.”
When Ybarra found out he was going to have a child, he called Sanchez. The two men talked about fatherhood and what kind of parent Ybarra wanted to be. Ybarra wasn’t alone: Sanchez has served as a father figure to many of his former players, especially the ones without involved dads.
Francisco Peralta, who played alongside Ybarra on Sunnyside’s line, said he was one of those kids without a father figure in his life. Peralta’s grandmother raised him off the field; on it, the offensive lineman leaned on Sanchez and his staff. Peralta was named to the Star’s All-Southern Arizona first team as a senior in 2000 and played collegiately at Northern Arizona. He’s now a volunteer assistant at Desert View.
Perralta credits Sanchez and his coaching staff for getting him through high school. If a student hadn’t eaten, Sanchez would give him $2 out of his own wallet to get something.
“He got us ready for a lot of things other than football — community, family, friendship. Just everything,” Peralta said.
Sanchez’s first Sunnyside team went 8-4 and made the state playoffs.
This rebuild, however, might take a while.
Santa Rita is playing its first season in Class 2A because of declining enrollment, and open enrollment has robbed the southeast-side school of many of its top athletes. Many talented athletes who previously would have attended Santa Rita now attend nearby Sahuaro or Palo Verde. Some even go further, to schools like Cienega.
The declining numbers have led Santa Rita, which played in the 4A-II state championship game in both 2007 and 2008, into a cycle of failure. The Eagles didn’t win a single game last season. The season before, they won just one game. And the same goes for the 2015 and 2014 seasons.
Santa Rita is 7-51 since the start of 2012; that’s an average of 1.16 wins per year.
Even more troubling, Sanchez said, was how the team’s already thin roster would dwindle during the course of the season. Players simply quit, tired of the losing.
“A team scores two or three touchdowns in the first few minutes of the game, and they’re giving up,” Sanchez said. “That’s part of what we’re trying to teach them, and help develop their character. Things don’t always go your way at first, but if you stay with it, eventually good things are going to happen for you.”
Signs of success
Sanchez knows there are no quick fixes as he tries to salvage one of Southern Arizona’s worst programs.
So he spent the summer emphasizing the importance of strength and conditioning. He’ll spend his first season focusing on the varsity program; once that stabilizes, then he’ll make his way out to the feeder schools to hopefully start building the program from the middle-school level.
Then there’s the X’s and O’s, roster construction and film work. On Tuesday, Santa Rita will travel to Empire for a 7 p.m. scrimmage. After that, Sanchez will be able to make more specific changes before starting the season Aug. 24 at Morenci.
There are already signs of progress. The team dressed just 14 players last season, an almost unheard-of number. Sanchez’s first Santa Rita team is 30 strong — and that number could grow now that school is back. Sanchez said he can already see a change in the players’ attitude, too. They’re helping each other, pushing hard, coming together.
Sanchez is bonding with his new team, too, one practice, one drill, one water bottle at a time.
“Now I can’t leave them,” he said, “because that’s what everyone has done to them.”