CLIFTON — It was in the fall of 2009 that Clifton High School died just a little bit.
Faced with a dwindling student enrollment and state-imposed budget cuts, the administration decided the benefits of sports weren’t worth the cost, so the entire athletic program was shut down.
Kids took their jerseys and went home. Parents, upset about the lack of extra-curricular activities, shuttled their kids to Morenci High School, just 4 miles way.
Gilbert Mesa, the longtime athletic director at Clifton, didn’t know what to do with himself on fall Friday nights, so he drove to Morenci or Duncan just to see some high school football.
“It was real, real hard,” Mesa said. “In a small community like Clifton, sports are so important. It really hurt a lot of people.”
Less than two months ago, Jack Day began his first shift as Clifton’s new principal. He took note of the number of high school students — 12, including six freshmen and four girls — and knew there was only one thing to do.
He brought sports back to Clifton.
The school is playing junior-varsity eight-man football with 10 players, two of whom are girls, including the starting left tackle. Day hopes an increase in enrollment will allow Clifton to field boys and girls basketball teams in the winter and baseball and softball teams in the spring.
“We’re trying to revitalize the school, and I think sports are a very important piece of that,” Day said. “It’s a really, really good thing for the school and the community.”
The banners on the wall of the basketball gymnasium are a reminder of how important sports once were at Clifton. They celebrate the school’s 13 state championships, the last of which was a Class 1A boys basketball title in 1992.
The Trojans haven’t won a state football title, although they reached the 1A championship game in 2004. But as is the case in many small towns, football always has been Clifton’s first love.
On Friday nights the entire town would shut down and pile into Stanton Stadium. Whenever the Trojans scored a touchdown, a rider on a white horse would gallop around the field, a tradition borrowed from Clifton’s college namesake, the USC Trojans.
“Everybody went to the games,” said Jackie Norton, who has lived in Clifton for 60 years and owned PJ’s CafÃ©, a Mexican-American restaurant just a couple of hundred yards from campus, for the past 30 years. “The whole community rallied around the team.”
But the years haven’t been kind to the school or the town. Clifton can’t keep up with Morenci, which is propped up by the Freeport McMoRan copper mining operation.
The money Freeport pours into Morenci has resulted in a wave of new homes, roads and, most importantly, a modernized high school that was built in 1982.
Clifton High School, on the other hand, doesn’t even have a place to call its own. The high school campus has been leased out to a construction company that trains workers for jobs in the copper mines. Clifton’s 12 high school students share space with the pre-K through eighth graders.
The antiquated facilities, along with Morenci’s growth spurt and opportunities — it offers extra-curricular activities like band, debate, cheer, etc. — has influenced Clifton families to send their kids to Morenci. The result: Clifton’s enrollment dropped from 72 in 2002 to 12 this year.
“It’s almost as if Morenci is swallowing Clifton whole,” football coach Charlie Hemphill said.
The school has withered so much that even some long-time Clifton residents believe it should close its doors for good.
“I was there when the school was thriving,” said town councilman Luis Montoya, who was the superintendent for the Clifton Unified School District until retiring in 2002. “But they’ve had financial problems, a lot of (staff) turnover and now less incentive for parents to send their kids to school there.
“There is resentment on the part of many, many people that their taxes go to help the school. More people are interested in just having the school close down.”
Day believes re-instituting the athletic program — even at the junior varsity level and only in a few sports — is vital to keeping the doors open. Parents won’t consider sending their kids to Clifton, he said, until it can be more than just an academic environment.
“We have to earn the community’s trust back and show them that we want a holistic education here for their kids,” Day said. “I’ve spoken to many parents who have said they’d much rather have their children here, but they’ve lost confidence in the school, so we’re trying to build that confidence back.”
It hasn’t been easy. Clifton had to borrow equipment from nearby Fort Thomas High School. Of the 10 kids on the football team, four had never put on a helmet. Asked what she knew about football before suiting up, freshman left tackle Julie Dominguez said “I’ve watched it. The penalties and stuff.”
“It’s working,” Hemphill said. “The girls get to play quite a bit. But we could use more players. Fort Thomas brought 19 kids to play us. I thought, ‘My God.’ My mouth was watering. I was thinking, ‘Give me two or three of those kids and leave them here.’ “
It might seem silly, a high school of 12 students trying to play sports. But Day wasn’t interested in just saving the school. He wanted to save the kids, too.
“It’s something to do after school,” Dominguez said. “You’re not out there doing something bad. You’re doing something productive. Without sports you just go home and hang out with friends. There’s nothing really to do. It makes it easier to get into trouble.”
Day’s goal is for Clifton to become a full-fledged Arizona Interscholastic Association member school and play a varsity schedule within two years.
The odds are against the school. But fighting the good fight isn’t always easy.
“We’re still hanging on,” Hemphill said. “There’s a lot of proud tradition here. We’re trying to bring it back.”