College coaches are coming through. Almost twice as many players are out.
There is an extra bounce in their step, even at 6 in the morning when more than 70 football players show up at Phoenix North High’s football field, where coach Bernie Busken barks out orders.
It’s only spring, but after the state-championship coach has had a year in the program and the Arizona Interscholastic Association placed all 10 Phoenix Union district schools into Division III, the playing ground finally feels even.
Busken, who won three state titles in the 1990s at Mesa Mountain View, said about 30 more kids have come out for spring football.
“The No. 1 thing that we have is our kids are recruiting our program,” said Busken, who came in late last spring to take on a North program that was dying in Division I, the highest classification in the state, trying to take on the likes of mammoth Phoenix Mountain Pointe. “So, if kids are still coming out, they’re liking what’s going on, they’re talking about it, they’re different in class, their teachers are making comments about some pride coming back.
“That’s the biggest thing is that they’re feeling better about themselves.”
Five college coaches in three days came through North this week to see players. They’re not Pac-12, but still it is more than what North is accustomed to.
And the players notice.
“I’ve never had this experience before, so I’m just getting used to it,” said junior quarterback Torey Blevins, a college prospect at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds. “We’re here early in the morning putting in the work. We also come in after school. We’re putting in a lot of work.”
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North went 1-9 last season in Division I with a 32-team roster. The Mustangs lost to Phoenix Mountain Pointe 64-0 and to Phoenix Desert Vista 58-6 in back-to-back weeks early in the season. Their only win came against fellow PUHSD-school Phoenix Maryvale, which has lost 31 consecutive games.
The AIA’s new formula to realign schools included factoring in the schools’ free and reduced lunch programs and the success rate from the past six seasons, not counting 2014.
North’s last non-losing season came in 2010 when it went 5-5.
Even then, it was playing at the top level, based on enrollment numbers.
Laveen Cesar Chavez is another Phoenix Union district school experiencing an uptick in participation this spring, where coach Jim Rattay now has his best shot at capturing his eighth state title as a head coach since he left Phoenix Christian and came over to Cesar Chavez in 2008.
Rattay has added the greatest player he ever coached, Bobby Wade, to his coaching staff. Wade was the state’s Player of the Year in 1998 when Rattay coached Phoenix Desert Vista to its first state championship. Wade, who works with the receivers at Chavez, played wide receiver at the University of Arizona and in the NFL.
Rattay got to 300 wins in his career last year when the Champions won their final four games in Division I after starting 0-6.
“Spring ball has been rejuvenated,” said Rattay, who has about 75 kids out daily for spring practice. “There’s a lot of participation. The kids are motivated. They know there is an opportunity for them to have fun, success.”
Participation increase, coupled with wins and playoff experience, could have a domino effect in the community, where young families may be more inclined not to leave the neighborhood, start building strong neighborhood youth programs and feed these Phoenix district schools.
“They’ll notice they have a viable program right here,” Rattay said.
North Athletic Director Ray Pino came by football practice before school this week, noticing the enthusiasm and the two college coaches standing by. It was refreshing, invigorating. He said there is a buzz on campus now, and the season still is nearly four months away.
“Huge numbers,” Pino said. “The excitement is definitely coming back. We’ve got quality coaches on board. The kids are confident, ready to go. Most of these football kids are cleared (academically) for next year.
“What it is, they know they’re not going to see that meat-grinder (schedule). Last year, we played Maryvale (a 20-14 win), and that was a great high school football game. You didn’t have all those D-I signee kids making huge plays. But it was a good high school football game, and that’s what it’s all about. We just want participation across the board. All of our sports are moving down in one way or the other. And the excitement is there.”
Busken doesn’t like his players carrying the “inner-city” label.
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“Our goal is to be a good football team, not a good inner-city football team, but a good football team,” Busken said. “I still got three or four coaches who are ready to be with us, who will be big difference-makers.
“I don’t like them to like that (inner city) label. We want to be a proud school, a proud team. The expectation level had been so low. Now, they’re doing better in the classroom.”
Busken doesn’t talk about winning records or making the playoffs. He wants them to work hard every week. So far, so good.
Junior linebacker Prince Gbeadah, a college prospect at 6-1, 210 pounds, smiles at the prospects of playing in Division III.
“Everybody is really looking forward to this season,” he said. “We’re going to have a great season. We’re hoping to dominate.”