River Valley High School is in the middle of nowhere. As recently as 2009 it finished 3-7 and was an afterthought in Class 3A/Division IV, where the White Mountain schools have ruled for years.
But look at River Valley now. It got the Division IV state title game in 2013, losing to Pinetop-Lakeside Blue Ridge 17-7. River Valley’s coaches are still convinced that if their kids didn’t have a bit of stage fright it would have beaten Paul Moro’s club.
The loss prompted co-coaches Paul Duchaineau and Mark Ruckle (yes, they’re co-head coaches) to get T-shirts made that read “Unfinished Business.”
On Wednesday, Duchaineau wore a T-shirt that read “Finished Business.” And why not? River Valley won its first state football title, beating Snowflake 28-21 to cap a 13-1 season.
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So how did River Valley go from nobody to somebody? Well, it has something to do with the unique arrangement between Duchaineau and Ruckle. They’re not co-coaches in name only. Duchaineau coaches the offense. Ruckle coaches the defense and runs the weight room, a sweat chamber both coaches say is key to River Valley’s success.
There’s no in-fighting or back-stabbing. Oh, the two might disagree once in a while but they coach their own units and get out of the way when it’s the other’s turn.
“There are times I lean on him and there are times he doesn’t lean on me,” Duchaineau said with a smile. “Nobody thought it would work. The key to the whole thing is neither one of us has an ego. We’re just there for the kids. We love the kids and we love the program we installed. We both have a lot of respect for what we do.”
It will be tough for River Valley to play in a third straight state championship game. It lost five senior starters on its offensive line. But the kids play hard and are so put-together from Ruckle’s weight room sessions that when they played in a 7-on-7 passing league this summer an opposing coach asked Duchaineau to have his players put their shirts back on because his teenage daughter, who was on hand, couldn’t concentrate.
I’ll have more on River Valley and its old-fashioned ways – both in terms of how it runs its offense and what it asks from its kids – at azcentral.com/sports later this month.
Thursday I’m heading to Yuma to talk to Yuma Catholic coach Rhett Stallworth, and on Friday I’ll finish up my trip at San Luis High School, which dropped its football program after the 2013 season.
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