St. Mary's

The mass exodus from St. Mary's has left the program to struggle with its identity, but has provided depth at other programs like Mountain Pointe as Garette Craig, left, and Thair Blakes, right, returned to their home school.

Darryl Webb/AFN

Garette Craig grew up in Ahwatukee. He figured that's where he was going to play high school football. His mother, however, had a different idea, so he went to St. Mary's.

Then she lost her job, could no longer afford tuition at the private Catholic school in downtown Phoenix, and now Craig is back at his neighborhood public school, Mountain Pointe.

His new teammate, Thair Blakes, started at St. Mary's as a freshman and wanted to stay there. But tuition hikes and slashed financial aid allotment sent the 6-foot-4 junior punter/wide receiver back to his neighborhood school last December.

The same blueprint followed the other 20-plus kids who have left St. Mary's since the end of last season.

There are three at Mountain Pointe, a handful at Marcos de Niza (Priest Willis, Mauriece Lee, Royal Bailey, Josh Eckley), and others at Chandler (LaRon Tarkington), Anthem Boulder Creek (Beau Kitson) and Peoria Centennial (Brennan Franklin). More returned to their roots at Laveen Cesar Chavez, Copper Canyon, Goodyear Millennium and other Valley schools. There are even a couple at Red Mountain who aren't playing football anymore.

"I was sad to leave," Craig said before heading to the Mountain Pointe practice field after Monday's first day of school. "They kept raising the cost and I tried to fund-raise and stay."

"I think we could have been really good," Blakes said.

Instead, many have a chance to be good with their original neighborhood schools. A few have already been granted eligibility after making financial hardship appeals last year that are required to transfer from a private to public school. Several more appeals will occur later this month when each presents his case to the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

"That amount of kids don't just get up and leave because a school isn't winning," said former St. Mary's coach Eddy Zubey, who is now at Higley. "... The fear is that they could lose out being the only co-ed Division I private school. If that's the hook, the hook isn't working anymore."

What new Knights coach Todd Williamson has is 41 varsity kids, 36 for a freshman team and likely no junior varsity squad, at a school with an enrollment of 602 kids playing Division I competition. To wit, Yuma (1,650) is the next smallest school in Division I football, followed by Tolleson (2,195).

St. Mary's is 15-29 in the past four years, but the difficulties go much further back. Even after Hall-of-Fame coach Pat Farrell - who won two championships as a player and four as a coach - hastily returned to coach the school a second time in the early 2000s, the Knights still haven't won a playoff game since 1998.

Despite three consecutive 7-4 seasons (2004 through 2006) during his second stint, Farrell noted the Knights never won a game in his final four years (2002-2008) against a team that didn't have two-way starters.

Between tuition rates of $9,000-$12,000 per year, declined financial aid (which never existed until the 1990s), and the decision to play football at Division I instead of its enrollment level of Division IV, the Knights are attempting another massive rebuilding project.

Meanwhile, private schools such as Brophy, Notre Dame, Valley Christian, Scottsdale Christian and Seton Catholic have exploded in recent years as viable East Valley landing spots for kids both academically and athletically.

Williamson knows about reclamation projects, leading Phoenix Central to a 13-8 record the past two years after it went 1-9 in 2007 and 2008.

His plan is similar for St. Mary's, though he was candid about the long-haul project upcoming for this once-proud football power and resigned to the possibility it could take a few years. And he said he was told there will at least be further discussions about changing divisions in the next two-year block beginning in 2013.

"You're not sending your kid here if you're not winning," he said. "You're not sending your kid here if you don't feel a reason to, but that's not on my plate right now. Now, let's put a competitive team out there and hope for a winning season. Let's get back to working hard and get people out here to watch and be respectable again."

But here comes the chicken-vs.-egg quandary. Williamson knows winning is the best way to attract families and kids back to the school, and perhaps despite the economic woes, some financial boosts internally or through alumni will resurface and help the program's cause.

Williamson also knows the road these next two years (at least) will be tough. His style of discipline and hard work could pay off for the kids in the program, but there is no denying the Knights - once a program on a pedestal - have reached the point where getting and keeping kids is top priority. At least until they can revisit the idea as to whether they still belong with the state's biggest boys two years from now.

"We've entered a place and time where you need every advantage you can get," Farrell said. "They have to find some level of success and be able to enjoy themselves in the process. There's nothing more depleting than having to feel like you have to play an absolutely perfect game every week just to have a chance at winning.

"It's almost like being a new school, only it's starting over."

Contact writer: (480) 898-6576 or mheller@evtrib.com

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