It was 30 minutes after the game and they just didn’t want to leave. They had whooped and hollered, been congratulated by their coaches and had sung the Mustang fight song – twice.
Finally, Sahuarita High School head football Coach Don Watt told his team to “grab a brother,” and the seniors were carried off the field to their parents, who were clutching balloons, flowers and homemade posters.
It was Friday night, and the athletes didn’t know they hadn’t made it into the state playoffs yet, but it didn’t matter. They were savoring their last home game in a season to remember, a season that left them with a 6-4 record, the best in three years.
Parents and SHS administrators agree that the difference between SHS football games last year and this year is night and day thanks to a new coaching staff and new traditions.
The team still pays tribute to legendary coach Burt Tingle by patting a stone before every game, but Watt has brought a whole set of other traditions.
They’ve got a new pre-game warm-up ritual designed to fire them up, and they enter the field through a tunnel engulfed in fog and flanked by the marching band and cheer team.
During the game, a handful of their fathers — called the “Roughriders” — clang a bell and sound horns and an air raid siren at every outstanding play.
Aside from the game itself, everything that happens at an SHS football game is planned, Principal John Kneup said.
“Don met with Christine Garcia and Laura Reyes, the band director and cheer coach, before school even started and they came up with a plan to make it not just a football game, but an event,” Kneup said. “Our games aren’t exciting by coincidence, it’s an event. It’s a very intentional event.”
Athletic Director Chip Stratton describes Mustang football games this way: “It’s a sensory overload in the best way possible.”
“Don has brought a culture that it’s contagious and I’ve caught the fever,” Stratton said. “He’s done a great job. It’s really become an event and there’s something for everyone at the games, I think. If you’re wanting to come see some good football and some entertainment, SHS is the place to be.”
The team also has a new chant – “Burn the boats.”
Watt often tells the boys how Hernán Cortés told his captains to “burn the boats” once they arrived in Mexico to conquer the Aztec Empire. The Spanish conquistador said they would fight and survive or die, and Watt wanted to instill that passion into his boys.
“It’s been Don’s motto since he got here, and to us it makes perfect sense,” Stratton said. “Our kids really rally around that motto and heed to that motto as well, that there’s no looking back. There’s only moving forward.”
In it together
Garcia, the band director, has seen a lot of coaches come and go over the last 18 years and she’s seen crowds ebb and flow. Usually, she said, it takes a couple of years for a new coach to get the crowds that Watt has drawn.
She agrees it has everything to do with his recognition that Friday nights aren’t just about the pigskin. There’s a sense of family among the players, cheerleaders and band members, she said.
“All of these students know they’re Mustangs whether they win or lose,” Garcia said.
Reyes, who has been coaching cheerleaders for five years, said Watt asking to sit down with her and Garcia was “huge.”
“He really wants everyone completely involved and to have the best experience they can,” she said. “I love it. It’s made a huge difference.”
Chet Williams’ son, Orlando, a junior, has played on the Mustangs’ football team three years. Prior to Watt taking the helm, he saw a lot of “deflated” kids quitting the team. Not this year.
“He knows the pulse of the kids and he’s bonded with them,” Williams said. “They’re giving him everything they’ve got and it’s exciting. He’s not only reached the kids, but he’s reached the parents.”
“He’s trying to brand the Mustangs and the people are seeing that,” he said. “They’re buying into that. We are Sahuarita. We are the Mustangs.”
Brenda Leinen, treasurer of the Mustangs’ Booster Club, is amazed at the crowd size, not only at home games but the away games, too.
“A crowd actually showed up and there was a whole different energy,” she said. “Parents and families are coming out now and you can hear them. You can hear the excitement. It’s really nice to see them all standing up and yelling. Last year I’d look up and you’d see people on their phones.”
So many moms are coming to the games nowadays that the Booster Club created a T-shirt, co-opting Watt’s idea that the boys are brothers. The slogan: “Motherhood of the Brotherhood.”
Ken Vu, whose son Noah is a junior outside linebacker, said the kids feel much better about themselves than in years past.
“With this coaching staff, the kids have hope. It’s a totally different program. They have bought into the coach’s system and they’ve seen some success out of it,” Vu said.
The Roughriders and the bells are a huge hit and a tradition he hopes continues forever, he said.
Melissa Luna’s son, Cristian Gonzales, a junior free safety, has been on the team three years.
She, too, likes the changes.
“He has some awesome traditions. I’m always so sad when we go to away games and we’re not allowed to bring the bells,” Luna said.
Cristian has been playing since he joined the Sahuarita 49ers youth football team and at least a dozen relatives show up for every game, she said.
Last year, they noticed a lot of Cristian’s teammates didn’t return to the team or quit mid-season because they didn’t like the coaching staff, Luna said.
Watt and his team have won many of those kids back, she said.
“It’s more of a family now,” Luna said.
Watt made an indelible impression during his interview for the job, Kneup said.
“When we interviewed him and he was the person the committee decided to hire, I thought if he delivers half of what he says he’s going to, Sahuarita football is going to do great things. But he’s done everything. Every single thing he’s said he was going to do, he’s done,” Kneup said. “He’s motivational. He’s consistent. The kids know that he loves them and it’s not a football team. It’s a family. They’ve got each others' backs.”
While he loves the excitement Watt and his assistant coaches have brought back to SHS football, Stratton said he is most pleased with the lessons Watt has imparted to the boys. He focuses on respect, honesty and accountability.
“Accountability was a big component of his interview. Holding kids accountable, making sure they’re getting the work done in the classroom, making sure they’re being good representatives in school, on the field and off campus,” Stratton said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had players come up, look me in the eye and shake my hand and it’s every time they talk to me.”
Stratton said he’s never seen fewer students on an ineligibility list. Recently, there was just one student athlete who couldn’t play because his grades weren’t up to snuff, he said.
The Booster Club provides dinner for the players before every game and Leinen said every time she pulled up to deliver the meals this year, the boys run out to the car to help her. Last year, she’d ask for help and get ignored.
“A great coach is one that not only makes good football players, but helps make them really good men and I think that’s his goal,” Leinen said.
Everywhere the team goes, Stratton said he gets compliments from the opposing team’s athletic director, coaches and fans about rituals and manners.
“People are starting to see that what we have down here is pretty special and are wanting to sort of mimic those things,” he said.
Kim Smith | 547-9740