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Opening of Gila Ridge, other factors contribute to Yuma High's slump
A large navy blue banner hangs above a water fountain inside the Palace at Prison Hill.
It tells any thirsty onlooker that the Yuma High boys basketball team was the region champions three straight years — from 1999-2002. Fifty-six smaller blue banners decorate the rafters over the gym floor, showing the world the accomplishments Criminal athletics have accrued over the decades.
The last two are from 2008-2009, when the volleyball and girls swim team were the Gila Valley Region champions. The boys basketball team also ended up winning the region title during that school year after Kofa had to forfeit the crown for using an ineligible player.
Since then, Yuma High's athletic programs have been in a decline. Its volleyball team had lost 35 straight power point matches before a win over Holtville this season. The boys basketball team won a total of six games the past three seasons. Last year, the team that saw the most success was wrestling, which finished 18th at the Division II state tournament.
These are just an excerpt from a larger problem for Yuma High. Track and field head coach and assistant football coach Curt Webber has been with the school for 23 years. He's seen both rough patches and the good times — like when Doan Field was filled to the brim on Friday nights and spectators sat on top of roofs just to get a glimpse of the exciting Criminal squad.
Since his time at Yuma High, has Webber seen athletics this down?
“No,” he said bluntly, shaking his head. “No.”
Some coaches believe this decline is simply part of the peaks and valleys most high school athletics go through. It's just a down time for the Criminals, but they'll be back — better than ever. Others, however, fear it may be something bigger.
‘Takes time to rebuild that pool'
According to the Arizona Department of Education (ADE), Yuma High's enrollment of 2,942 was the largest in the area in 2006 — 239 more than Kofa.
In August 2007, Gila Ridge opened its doors for the first time — starting with only freshmen and sophomores.
Two years later, as Gila Ridge's enrollment ballooned to 1,813, Yuma High's numbers dropped to 1,741 — the lowest in the area.
“That's been good. It's been healthy in the sense of you don't want a school that large. In the sense of academics, which is our main priority, it's been a good thing.” Yuma Union High School district superintendent Toni Badone said about Gila Ridge's opening.
While Kofa was dealing with the same problem with the opening of San Luis in the early 2000s, its enrollment was 2,375 in 2009 and Cibola's enrollment actually grew by 153 students over that four-year span.
Students-athletes living in the Foothills who would have normally attended Yuma High became Gila Ridge Hawks.
“It's been a huge effect on us because we got a lot of the Foothills kids,” Yuma High softball coach Liz Huyck said. “That has been a big effect on us.”
“When we lost half our population to Gila Ridge, I think what also left for a lot of the part was the clientele that wants to be competitive at sports,” girls basketball and boys golf coach Nate Jurgens said.
The loss of students was a similar problem Yuma and Kofa faced when Cibola opened in 1989. From 1988-1991, Kofa's enrollment dropped 322 students to 2,143 and Yuma High's enrollment dropped 459 students to 1,791. However, over the next 15 years, Yuma High was able to boost its numbers back up because of the growth in the Foothills and returned to have the largest student body in the area by 2006.
“Beginning with Cibola (opening) I've seen a steady attrition of our athletes,” Webber said. “Cibola was bad enough but it sort of built back up again but when Gila Ridge came online, that really – because we lost all the kids out of the Foothills that participated in everything.”
“One of the new schools took from the pool of our kids. It takes time to rebuild that pool,” Yuma High volleyball coach Tish Malone said. “We have some good kids to get them to that point, we just don't have as big of a pool as we used to.”
However, Yuma High faces a problem in expansion after Gila Ridge opened that it didn't have when Cibola opened in 1988 — some coaches worry it may not have a place to grow. With the Colorado River on its back, Yuma High's boundary line doesn't have room to expand.
“It's been hard because we're landlocked so the growth isn't there,” Huyck said. “The growth is out in the Foothills.”
“If you move into Yuma, you're not going to move to the north side of Yuma,” football coach Tom Fox said. “If you're moving into Yuma because of a job, you're going to move into a new housing development by Cibola or out by Gila Ridge. I like it here. … We're landlocked. We can't really grow. We just don't get a lot of new people in town.”
However, Badone feels that isn't the case — she thinks Yuma High has ways to get its enrollment back up.
“As far as growing, Yuma High has room to grow. If you look where the boundaries are, there's still plenty of room that goes out east. We don't want to physically make students go there because there's no point in changing boundaries on kids. It's very disruptive when you do that,” said Badone, who added that Yuma High's STEAM Academy program and small class size could be major influences in adding more students. “I'd like to do this naturally. I don't see any point in changing boundaries for a reason just like athletics.”
‘Look at the numbers!'
One glaring question in the down period of Criminal athletics is whether or not they are in the right Arizona Interscholastic Association division.
Currently, San Luis (2011-2012 enrollment of 2,654, according to the ADE), Cibola (2,538) and Kofa (2,164) are the only schools in the area in Division I — the highest division. Gila Ridge (1,845) and Yuma High (1,530) are both in Division II. Meanwhile, in Division III, many schools' enrollments are in the 1,400-1,600 range.
“Look at the numbers! No, we're not in the right division,” Webber said. “We ought to be placed according to where our numbers are. … It's not that our athletes are any less than anybody in this town. But it's just a numbers game. We don't have them.”
“We should definitely be in Division III,” Fox said. “I don't think it's a safety issue yet. But I think eventually if we have to continue to play up, particularly in a sport like (football), I think it'll become a safety issue. To even go across town and play Cibola, when they have an extra 40, 50 kids in the overall program. Eventually, it's going to be a safety issue.”
There is a proposal to be seen by the AIA board on Oct. 22 that would only schedule games in a school's same division and section. Badone has lauded the AIA's attempt to take divisions on a sport-by-sport basis.
The way scheduling works now, 80 percent of the schedule is automatically processed by the AIA and can have games against schools one division above or below — meaning Yuma High would get to stay in town and play the area's Division I schools. Not playing up at Division II would take away not only the guaranteed games in town for Yuma High, but it would affect the area's Division I school's schedules — meaning every school in the district would need to schedule games out of town.
With that comes expenses and in a state like Arizona, which still has one of the worst percentage change in spending per student since 2008, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, economics plays a heavy hand.
“How do you make up that kind of loss of a budget and still maintain programs?” Badone said. “From the beginning, we wanted to maintain our athletic programs so we fought to have all of our schools in the same conference or league or division, whatever you want to call it.
“Right now, because of the variations of enrollment, if we went just by enrollment we would have schools in three different divisions and that would not be good for us in terms of travel because we'd be traveling way too much for a cost-effectiveness.”
“I think it's economically driven. To me the smart thing would be to take the schools that are way overcrowded … and here you're sitting with a school (Yuma High) that's half-full,” Webber said. “They should start taking the overhang from all these other places and balance it out. I would ask for more of a balancing of the numbers.”
For Badone, to balance expenses, boundaries and competitive programs are a difficult task with no easy action. “I'd say all of this is economically driven. We looked into going away from Arizona and the AIA to joining the CIF because the California schools are closer. Our goal is to preserve our athletic programs but it wasn't to preserve it to win. Athletics is about building character, it's not about winning. … We're looking to be in a division where we're competitive, but at the same time, sometimes that's not based on population of school, it could be based on other things.”
Other coaches, however, are not quick to pin the blame of the rough stretch on playing up at Division II.
“It's tough to say. When you're losing, you want to blame it on the division. I'm not going to blame it on the division,” Malone said.
‘Spend so much time teaching fundamentals'
The way the district is set up, many of the low-income areas in Yuma fall under the boundaries of Yuma High. This may cause socioeconomic problems that families face, especially when it comes to extracurricular activities.
“I personally think there might be. These kids can't afford the expensive camps,” Malone said. “The kids that can, I think their parents and grandparents are really trying. But then we have kids that there's just no way they can do it.
“We had a young lady who didn't play with us in the summer because she had to work to help support her family. You respect that kid.”
“A lot of times when our kids get to school, they're taking care of siblings. They're getting a job. They're helping pay the bills,” Huyck said. “It's difficult for them to say I'm going to spend three hours of my day playing a sport when I could spend three hours of my day working.”
According to the ADE, Yuma High's dropout rate of 7.7 percent was the highest of the area in the 2011-2012 school year, with San Luis' 4.6 percent the second highest.
The main feeder schools that Yuma High gets its incoming students from — mostly Fourth Avenue — are dealing with the same struggles. “Go right across the street to Fourth Avenue and see what their participation numbers are. And you're going to find out it isn't much different, because that's our main feeder,” Webber said.
Low participation in the middle schools results in athletes coming into high school with little experience in sports. Fox said many of his freshman players are playing in their first season of organized football.
“We don't have a lot of kids that come in that have played a lot of sports,” he said. “We spend so much time teaching fundamentals. Not just in football. I see a lot of our coaches teaching fundamentals – how to line up, what's the proper stance, proper technique.”
‘Charlie Brown doesn't know how to win'
Currently, the Yuma High volleyball team is 1-9 in power point games. Last season it went 0-17 and 1-15 in 2010. Earlier this season, a player came up to Malone and said that the team forgot how to win.
“There's a point where it's like, ‘Oh Charlie Brown, the lovable loser.' He busts his butt every day and every time you think he's going to win, what happens? Charlie Brown doesn't know how to win and that's what happens when you don't expect to win. You train differently in your head,” Malone said.
With the recent downturn in Yuma High athletics, the coaches have been hard at work trying to prevent the concept of a losing mentality to hover over the programs. There is the idea that some athletes will find loopholes in the system to go to a school with a more competitive program — which means success may beget success and failure may beget failure.
“As coaches, we try hard to change (the losing mentality). That's not how we practice, not how we play,” Huyck said. “But absolutely it's a possibility. When you get knocked down day after day, it's hard to get up.”
Jurgens said he can't worry about the recent struggles of his teams. He prepares as if every year is going to be the year his Criminals break out. Webber talks about how when things are good at Yuma High, it's a great place to be — it just hasn't been that way in a few years. The coaches, almost by pure will, are trying to make sure Yuma High doesn't slip too far to where it can't bring itself back up.
“If I ever think that way, I'm in the wrong business. You can't walk out and do this job and think that way,” Malone said. “You have to think you can take these kids someplace. If you get your butt kicked on the way, you get your butt kicked on the way. It's luck of the draw.
“You remember when Kofa was down. You remember when Cibola was down. You remember when Yuma was up. You go through cycles. But when you're down, people start to see you that way and it's hard to dig yourself out of it.”
For Webber, the recent decline in Criminal athletics is a result of several different factors coming together at once for Yuma High.
“There's a lot of complex situations spinning at the same time. And there's not real right or wrong answers for it. It's kind of a blend of unfortunate situations right now for us.”
Webber also said that coaches like wrestling coach Jeff Welsing, baseball coach Judd Thrower and others are the key to a Yuma High rebirth. Even in the midst of probably one of the toughest athletic periods for Yuma High, the coaches remain optimistic. Even in the face of some down years, hope springs eternal.
“There's enough guys here that won't let that happen,” Webber said. “But it very easily could. If you get some people who don't care about it. The Jeff Welsings, the Judd Throwers, the Liz Huycks and you lose those mentally tough people — you're in trouble. You're in big trouble.
“I think the last couple of years we've had two pretty good freshman classes in a row. I think we're adapting to the situation. It's not like how it was three years ago when it was pure chaos. It's started to recover.”
Jesse Severson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 539-6881. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/YSJesseSeverson.