ELFRIDA — Seven familiar faces to the Valley Union football program hope to lead the Blue Devils back to the state playoffs and onto the field this season.
“In the last couple years we have fallen off of where we once were and we all want to bring it back,” Dusty Vasquez said. “We want to restore that pride and respect we used to get from other schools when we stepped on the field.”
The new coaches are Brandon Gilbreth and Vasquez, who both work for the federal government; Cody Essary, who works for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office and is stationed in Elfrida; Matt Riesgo and Brandon Evans who work for Arizona Public Service; Ramon Martinez who works for the county and Milo Martinez. Of the seven coaches, four have kids on the team while Essary, Ramon and Milo Martinez all played at Valley Union when they were in high school.
“I played here from 2006-2009,” Essary said. “I get excited to see how excited these kids are to be out here even though it’s conditioning. I’m anxious to see their level of excitement once our season starts.”
In 2015-16 the Blue Devils were 7-1 in the regular season and lost to Pima in the state finals. Shortly after their season was over their coach of 10 years, Tony Luzania, stepped down. Replacing him was then assistant coach John Estelle who took the team to the state playoffs his first two years where they were eliminated in the first round. The last two years the Blue Devils went 2-7 and were 1-8 last year winning the first game before dropping the next eight.
Gilbreth, Ramon Martinez and Vasquez, all served as volunteer assistants last year under Estelle.
“When John announced he was not coming back we all got together and decided we would work together to help these kids,” Gilbreth said. “I guess you could say I’m the head coach even though I don’t look at it that way. They needed somebody to take the title I guess. I’m overseeing everything and trying to keep everything going in the right direction.”
Gilbreth said he told the VU administrators to take the coaching stipend that was offered to him and his staff and put it back into the program so there would be more money for the team. Gilbreth also took a moment to acknowledge Trent Noble, the groundskeeper at VUHS who, he says, has done an amazing job of keeping the field ready for them to use in their conditioning.
“None of this would not be possible if it wasn’t for him,” Gilbreth said. “These fields look pristine. We are very fortunate to have such a nice field to practice on.”
Despite the football season being in jeopardy, the Blue Devils have been conducting conditioning drills for several weeks.
“It’s hard coaching a contact sport right now when there is no contact allowed,” Essary said.
Valley Union was scheduled to kick off its season Aug. 21 at home against San Manuel, but that game along with the remaining games have been delayed now as the Arizona Interscholastic Association decides on how it wants to proceed with 1A football which plays eight-man.
“It’s hard not knowing if we’re going to have a season or not,” Ramon Martinez said. “I hope we do but we have to wait and see what the AIA decides.”
All the coaches agree having to deal with the COVID-19 restrictions and conditions have made it difficult when it comes to preparing for the upcoming season. No footballs are allowed at practice, social distancing is encouraged which makes it difficult when attempting to execute plays and the normal break out huddles teams do, no longer exist.
“The toughest part for me quite honestly is these kids, they want to practice so bad,” Gilbreth said. “When we started conditioning we were going two days a week. It was their idea we increase it to four days a week.”
Vasquez added many of his current players at one time played for the Douglas Chargers and the experience they’ve gained from that is helping them as they now transition to high school football.
Ramon Martinez played on the front line for the Blue Devils from 2002-2006 and plans on working with lineman once again this season.
Even though seven coaches may be unconventional, Essary said on this coaching staff every person has a say and they each provide a different perspective.
“It’s nice because we can discuss things as a group, nothing is set in stone,” he said. “We have seven different minds out here putting things together. It allows us to get an accurate representation of what we want to see out here on the football field.”
They all have different minds but all agree they would not be doing this if it was not for the support of their wives, families and employers who work with them to adjust their hours to coach these kids.
“This is just my way of helping out and giving back,” Riesgo, who is head of the Douglas APS office but resides in Elfrida and has a son on the team, said. “We’ve all seen these kids want to be out here. That motivates us to be out here as well.”