Football success brings excitement, pride to Nogales

Football success brings excitement, pride to Nogales


Football success brings excitement, pride to Nogales


Every day, folks walk into Alex’s Barber Shop in Nogales, plop down in one of the five chairs in the back of the shop and talk about life in the southern Arizona border town.

Politics, religion, the weather, immigration, they’re all part of the daily conversation.

This week, however, Alex’s regulars have one thing on their mind: The Nogales High School football team.

“Oh yes, oh yes. All the town is talking about it,” said Alex Valencia, who has owned Alex’s for 23 years. “This is history for us. It’s awesome.”

Nogales is, without question, the most surprising story of the playoffs. The Apaches were the No. 14 seed in Division III, but after knocking off No. 3 seed and undefeated Tucson Sabino in the first round and No. 11 Peoria Sunrise Mountain last week, they’ve reached the semifinals for the first time in school history.

Upset No. 2 seed Queen Creek Friday night, and Nogales will play for a state championship, something unimaginable just a month ago.

“Everybody is excited,” coach Vince Villanucci said. “We’re in the paper, on the local news. It means so much to everybody. I don’t want to let the people down. We’re getting ready every day, every hour, every second.”

Two years ago, I traveled to Nogales because I wanted to know how the high school and the football team was dealing with the effects of Senate Bill 1070, which had been cited for lower enrollment figures in schools across the state.

Villanucci was the only school official willing to discuss the football team in context of the immigration debate. He said the same thing then as he said this past week: Nogales gets a bad rap.

“We have the safest city in the country,” he said. “We have Border Patrol here, customs, immigration agents, local police, the sheriff. Yeah, there are issues, but until you’re down here and see what it’s like, you don’t appreciate how nice is down here.”

Still, Nogales is viewed by many as the open door for illegal immigration, a place where our country’s values are compromised and headless bodies pop up on Interstate 19. That perception is why the Apaches’ success is so important to the community.

“I remember how the morale and energy in the city improved a couple of years ago (2011) when we won the state basketball championship,” Mayor Arturo Garino said. “It’s an image-building boost for the border region and Nogales. It’s good for the school, the students and their families.”

Nogales’ playoff run isn’t a microwave success story. In his six seasons as coach, Villanucci has led the Apaches to a 46-21 record. They’re 25-6 since Oct. 1, 2010, and they have back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time in school history.

Nogales isn’t doing it with numbers. The Apaches have 36 players on their roster; Queen Creek has 53.

Not that Villanucci cares.

“I don’t like numbers,” he said. “I want quality, not quantity … Everyone that knows me, they know how hard I work with these kids. We try to do our best with what we’ve got, and this year we’ve got a pretty good ballclub. And it’s showing.”

Nogales doesn’t win with complicated schemes, either. Its defense is dominant — the Apaches shut out four teams and held seven opponents overall to 10 points or less — senior Brian McCarty (1,558 yards, 16 touchdowns) is the focal point of the run-heavy offense, and senior quarterback Marcel Renteria (21 touchdowns, seven interceptions) makes few mistakes, which probably has something to do with the fact he’s ordered to throw the ball less than two seconds after he takes the shotgun snap.

“I used to stand back there with a stopwatch, but he got so used to releasing it quick that I don’t need to anymore,” Villanucci said. “We’re going to get rid of the ball quickly and minimize our sacks.”

As he drove home after the 36-34 victory over Sabino, Villanucci became concerned that his players would be satisfied with their season. They had pulled off the impossible; what was there left to do?

He got his answer the next morning.

“We got back to school at 1:30 a.m. Saturday and every kid showed up at 8 a.m. to watch film,” Villanucci said. “That took my worry away.”

After meeting with his players, Villanucci drove to Alex’s for a haircut and some conversation. The reaction he got stunned him.

“Everybody was congratulating me, talking about the game and showing me articles in the paper,” Villanucci said. “I felt like a celebrity.”

Imagine the excitement if Nogales wins the state championship.

“They would probably name a street after me,” Villanucci said.


“You never know,” Garino said. “I haven’t been presented with that yet, but you never know. But there will be a celebration. I can promise you that.”

Reach Bordow at or 602-444-7996. Follow him on Twitter at


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