The Apache Junction High School varsity football team did something unusual Monday morning: It practiced.
After multiple positive COVID-19 tests within the program forced cancellation of the final two games of the regular season and placed team members and coaches on 14-day quarantine, the Prospectors gathered at Davis Field at 6 a.m. Nov. 16, the lights of the stadium on, the enthusiasm in the players’ voices just as loud and bright.
“It was awesome,” Coach Bruce Binkley said. “With all the doom and gloom it was just nice to see the kids be kids for an hour or two. They deserved that.”
The real reward comes Friday when No. 8 seed Apache Junction hosts its first home playoff game since 2009; the Prospectors will take on No. 9 seed Peoria at 7 p.m. in a 4A Conference play-in game.
“The kids were talking about it at practice,” Binkley said. “They were saying, ‘We were like 6 years old when it happened (the last home playoff game).’ I’m hoping it gives people some hope. The Coronavirus is the only thing people are talking about. There are so many problems all the time right now. Our job is to give them hope.”
A win would be nice, too.
The best bit of news Binkley got Monday? All of his players are healthy and should be available for Friday’s game. What he couldn’t answer Monday, what he won’t be able to answer until sometime during the game, is how the two weeks off has affected his team.
Either the players will have fresh legs or it will take them some time to get used to the speed of the game. Time, Binkley worries, they may not have.
“Football is a different type thing,” Binkley said. “I told my wife, ‘The first quarter is going to be the most important quarter of football I’ve had in a long time.’ If they jump on us quick, are we going to have the legs underneath us to have the ability to come back, after not having practiced for a long time?
“I’ve never done this before so I don’t know how to answer that. If this was a team I had in the past, not to criticize anybody, I’d be more concerned. But these kids are so mature I think they can handle it.”
Nor is Binkley worried that Apache Junction will be cowed by the moment. The Prospectors may have played just five games in the regular season, finishing 3-2, but two of those games were against Mesquite, the No. 1 ranked team in 4A and Poston Butte, the No. 6 ranked team.
“They’ve played some big games already,” he said. “I don’t think it will be overwhelming.”
Peoria finished 4-3 in the regular season but it did beat Poston Butte, 28-22. Apache Junction lost to Poston Butte 49-6 on Oct. 22. Conversely, Peoria just squeaked by Arcadia, 18-15, while AJ hammered the Titans, 49-27.
One possible advantage for Apache Junction is Peoria’s style of play. The Prospectors struggled against teams with athletic edge players and a strong passing game. Peoria, however, is averaging just 16.1 passes per game; it relies on a rushing attack that averaged 151.1 yards per contest.
“That’s good because that’s the way we are,” Binkley said. “Any time you go against teams with great athletes and all they do is throw the ball it’s going to give you fits.”
Peoria’s style could mean a big game for senior linebacker Brody Bullard, who thrives in a physical contest.
Offensively, Apache Junction will continue to rely on sophomore quarterback Gavin Limongello, who’s thrown for 1,092 yards and rushed for a team-high 569 yards, and senior wide receiver Cameron Garcia, who’s caught 39 passes for 751 yards and three touchdowns.
Editor’s note: Scott Bordow is the director of communications and community engagement for Apache Junction Unified School District.