To say that Combs High football took its lumps the last two seasons would be an understatement. A record of 1-19 isn't a mark to inspire confidence in the players, coaches or community.
So imagine the boost a 3-0 start in 2013 has given Combs' players, coaches and community. There are plenty of factors to explain the rough two years for the program after it opened 3-6 with an independent schedule in 2010. The primary one is the schedule.
“Our schedule the last two years was a killer,” first-year head coach Jesse Hart said. “We opened up each year with Queen Creek and then Williams Field. There were some other tough ones. Last year we played Queen Creek and Seton and they were both state champions. The schedule was all about who was close to us. A lot of those teams were a division above us, and some of the top teams in the division above us..”
Hart, who is the school's third head coach in four years, is quick to point out the team's start this year also is related to opposition. Somewhat a return to normalcy. Combs, a Division IV school, faced five D-III opponents the past two years. This year Combs faces no opponents in D-III, nine in D-IV and one in D-V. Nearby schools in Queen Creek and San Tan Valley have already enjoyed winning seasons, playoff berths and even a state title (see Queen Creek, Poston Butte and San Tan Foothills).
“For sure the schedule this year has helped us,” Hart said. “It's more about playing teams in our division and our section.”
Beyond the schedule, continuity in coaching hasn't been a plus. Hart has been with the program as defensive coordinator and defensive line coach the last three years. He signed on as head coach this spring, but brings as much familiarity to the players as anyone.
“It's been a unique sitiuation for me,” Hart said. “We opened with eight graders and those are the kids who are now seniors. This senior group I've been (teaching) the whole time. They know my personality. So I think there's some comfort there. Still, it's three different coaches.”
While the defense Combs employs is pretty much the same, Hart installed an offense with the emphasis on running the ball. Last year Combs worked often out of the spread. Trailing early and often last year, opponents were able to sit back for the pass or pressure knowing the Coyotes had little choice but to throw.
“My philosophy is to have the best players on defense,” Hart said. “We're more of a ground-and-pound offense. Ball control is what we want. So far it's worked well in two games (wins over Canyon State and Wickenburg). The first game (Globe) not so much. That game was played in a monsoon.”
A key position switch was required for this year's team to fit the new offense. Last year's quarterback — Nick Prueher — battled for the spot during the preseason with fellow senior Sean Sasser. Hart decided at the end of the QB competition, Prueher best served at linebacker. It's a critical example of a team-first attitude.
“NIck is one of those guys who is selfless,” Hart said. “He trusts the decision. Didn't blink an eye when the decision was made. Now Nick is calling the signals on defense.”
With the start of this year's new two-year scheduling block, Combs has one of the higher enrollment figures in D-IV — just over 1,100. That growth has arrived slower than expected due to the poor economy when the school opened in 2008-2009 with a couple of classes. Hart said with the economy gradually picking up more families are moving in around Combs.
“Things are starting to recover,” Hart said. “We've got our biggest freshman class ever. Growth was slow the first few years. That's kept youth football league leagues from getting developed and established.”
Combs takes its 3-0 record on the road this Friday to Coolidge — also off to a 3-0 start. Coolidge won last year's game, 46-32. The Bears are an established D-IV school with plenty of winning seasons behind them. It's the best challenge to date for Combs.
“They are big, fast and strong,” Hart said. “The way we've started has made us more confident, but we have to stay focused. We're excited for the challenge, and there's excitement around the school. The kids are playing with a chip on their shoulder after going 1-19 the last two years.”