Pedersen on Sports

Now that Sahuarita has two high schools, let their sports rivalry begin

The evolution of Sahuarita from a blip along the road to Mexico into a full-fledged community has been a long one, with many notable milestones.

Incorporation came nearly 20 years ago, when folks came together to hold off a perceived takeover from the Green Valley machine to the south. Then came the town's first major development, Rancho Sahuarita, with its thousands of homes and an invasion of new families, ideals and expectations.

Next came wider roads, multiple stop lights and, finally, almost enough retail options to lessen the need to be constantly driving to Tucson for essentials and frivolous spending.

But not until last Thursday did Sahuarita achieve maybe the most telling milestone for a small town-cum-bustling suburb: a high school football rivalry.

Sahuarita is no longer a one-school town. The town's namesake school now has a built-in foe, Walden Grove High. And the Thursday, Aug. 29, meeting between the schools at Sahuarita High was the first ever.

It was a noteworthy, where-were-you-when event for the suburb that caused roughly 3,000 people to pack the stands at Earl J. Kelly Stadium. And most of them stuck it out through 2 1/2 hours of light but persistent rain to see Sahuarita win the inaugural Copper Cup 27-10.

The postgame handshake between the Mustangs of Sahuarita and Walden Grove's Red Wolves was a reunion of sorts, if you can have a reunion between people who live around the corner from each other. Until three years ago, many of the players were not just living in the same neighborhoods; they also were in the same classrooms and playing on the same teams.

Since Walden opened in 2011, this town has been forced to split allegiances, to pick a side: the traditional royal blue and gold of SHS, or the more modern color scheme of maroon and black for WGHS. Some families ended up getting split from the inside, such as the Lees, who last year had older son Josh playing quarterback for Sahuarita as a senior, while younger brother Salem was a lineman for Walden Grove because the district boundaries dictated that's where he belonged.

The new Walden Grove-Sahuarita rivalry is the first of its kind in Southern Arizona since the Marana school district opened Mountain View in the mid-1990s. Before that, it was the splitting of the Sunnyside district on Tucson's southside, changing it from a place to root just for the beloved Blue Devils to one where you have a choice of backing the upstart Desert View Jaguars.

Those rivalries, like the one in Sahuarita, were born from the need for more classrooms, thanks to a population boom. But they quickly became more than just good-natured competitions on the fields and courts, instead devolving into discontent and rancor that impressionable high school students were more than willing to buy into.

In Marana, stories of burning emblems into each other's football fields and other acts of vandalism became commonplace. On the southside, fights outside the football stadium—and sometimes in the stands, during the game—were as prevalent as touchdown passes.

As a result of some shenanigans and tomfoolery, competition between the schools was cut off for a time, at least in sports like football where you could be more selective in your scheduling. The schools have resumed their annual tussle in the past few years, though like in the past, the series has been one-sided. Mountain View crushed Marana last Thursday, making it four straight since they began playing again.

Sunnyside and Desert View will be on the same field again in mid-October—they're in the same section now, so they can't not play each other—but Desert View has won only once in 12 meetings. And though the tension between the schools' factions isn't as heated as in the past, I'm still putting the over/under on the number of cops assigned to the game at a shit-ton.

Compare that to the Sahuarita-Walden Grove game, where a whopping four uniformed police officers spent most of the game chatting with each other or texting, and occasionally giving the eyeball to a wayward teen. The biggest security concern that night was whether Sahuarita students were going to rush the field to celebrate the win.

Maybe it was the rain, or the laid-back nature of being out in the suburbs, but I didn't see one inkling of angst and contempt among the fans, the coaches or the players. I was quite surprised, because every experience I've had with such rivalries—my Scotch Plains-Fanwood Raiders hated those wretched Blue Devils from Westfield, and we all know how the Wildcats and Sun Devils get along—involves at least some conflict.

But there were no fights on the field, no pushing and shoving among Mustangs and Red Wolves. Not even a West Side Story-like showdown on the paths ringing the field, where packs of teens roamed, donned in Horsepower! or Red Wolves Nation shirts. Actually, it was more high-fives and head nods than anything else ­— just like district and school administrators had been hoping and planning for since Walden Grove was conceived five or six years ago.

Sahuarita Unified School District Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said everything associated with the establishment of Walden Grove, as well as the continuance of Sahuarita High, has been about equity. While other districts have tried to make each new school as different from the existing school as possible (in Vail, the football teams from Cienega and Empire have never met and likely never will), in Sahuarita the hope is that the schools can share resources equally while keeping unique identities.

To that end, the district scrapped its initial plan to have Walden Grove and Sahuarita share athletic facilities, a move that would have surely led to the Walden folks feeling like the unwanted stepchild. Instead, WGHS has a nice, new gym. And thanks to the district taking over control of Pima County's neighboring Sahuarita Park, the school has converted ball fields into varsity-level playing surfaces.

And the school is putting the finishing touches on a football stadium, albeit one with a grass field, as opposed to the artificial turf that Sahuarita High has used the last few seasons.

Ultimately, though, no amount of equality-driven efforts will be able to completely control the rivalry between Sahuarita and Walden Grove, because some things can't be altered. Competition becomes heated, and passionate, and emotions lead to strange things.

It's already been seen in the brief history of contests between the schools, when an innocent-enough junior varsity soccer match between the schools in early 2012 (when Walden only had freshmen and sophomores) brought accusations of poor sportsmanship after Sahuarita played starters from its varsity team.

If that's the worst it gets down there, I'll be amazed. But also more willing to believe there's hope for humanity.

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