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courtesy of MaxPreps.comMaxPreps.com
Female football coach Amy Arnold wins games and respect at Mesa PrepSep 24, 2012 There was a time when there were a lot more onlookers at a Mesa Prep (Ariz.) football practice than just the mosquitoes visiting from the nearby canal.
While the bugs can be persuaded to disperse with a little repellent, as Monsoon head coach Amy Arnold displayed at practice earlier this week, the other pests weren't as easily swayed to leave. And they wanted more than blood.
So it was going take something stronger than an aerosol can to break down the uneasiness and angst that the fathers brought with them to that initial practice back in 2008.
They were wondering what the athletic director was thinking when Arnold was hired to coach their boys, most playing the game for the first time, in the manliest of all sports. They camped out along the sidelines of the first couple of practices. They were waiting from one misstep, a sign that Arnold was in over her head, or any indication that a woman should not be running a football problem.
"As you can see, no one is here now," senior quarterback Nick Staloch said. "My dad was probably the one most concerned. It didn't take long before everyone realized we were in good hands."
The program has been flourishing under Arnold, who was applying to be the assistant coach in 2008 and instead came out of the interview with then-athletic director Jean-Mark O'Connor with the head coaching job for the start-up junior high program.
As the players have grown, so has the program.
"The pride I get from coaching is a special feeling," she said. "Watching them come together as a team and develop those bonds they'll have forever. When you see the closeness and brotherhood form, you know you are on the right track to becoming a team."
This year Mesa Prep is in its first year of being recognized by the Arizona Interscholastic Association in Division VI 8-man football after finishing as the state runner-up in the charter school division a year ago. The Monsoon is 5-0 after a 38-0 blowout win over Hayden (Winkelman, Ariz.) and once the Freeman Rankings are updated on Tuesday, is likely to move higher than its No. 15 ranking in Arizona 8-man football.
Yes, the transition has gone smoothly.
"It has gone pretty well," Arnold said. "We have some very good players and we have been together for a long time now. The level of play in Division VI is definitely better and we have some tough games coming that will really tell us where we stand."
Attend a Mesa Prep practice and it is very clear where Arnold and her assistant, Angie Darnell, stand with the 23 players on the roster. The players are respectful, disciplined and fully tuned-in to what their female coaches are preaching. Arnold spent time with the offensive line, where her playing background lies, at a recent practice and was very hands-on and physical while teaching her linemen how to stop a swim move. Every single player had their attention on her and responded with a quick and sharp, "Yes, coach."
The second-guessing that might have been prevalent at the start has been squashed like one of those mosquitoes that stuck around a little too long.
"All of that is gone as far as I know," Arnold said. "I haven't run into that in a long time, and when I do it's usually the officials. I'll get ‘You're the head coach?' question every now and then, but it doesn't bother me at all. I am used to the reaction and I don't think it is on the front burner anymore."
Read about Natalie Randolph, who coaches the Coolidge High team in Washington, D.C.
Arnold, 40, grew up in Oklahoma and Kansas – although she was a Steelers fan - where her love for the game overflowed into the neighborhood yards as she played football with the boys. When she moved to the Phoenix area in the mid-2000s for a job, Arnold came across an ad for a tryout for a semi-professional women's football league and ended up playing on the offensive line for six years in the Women's Professional Football League and the Women's Football Alliance.
"It was some of the most fun I have ever had in my life," said Arnold, who is also the athletic director at Mesa Prep.
Check out fan photos of the Mesa Prep football team
More importantly, it laid the groundwork for her coaching career at Mesa Prep, which is believed to be the only team in the nation with an all-female coaching staff. Arnold, who adheres to the John Wooden pyramid of success, relied heavily on the advice of Gerry Turley, her coach with the Phoenix Prowlers of the WFA.
"My first year I was like a sponge," said Arnold, who looks forward to attending coaching clinics for the first time this offseason. "I always had a notebook with me and I would write down anything I thought would help. It was my Bible."
All of those early ideas, and the lessons since learned, are now on an Excel file and the notebook has gone the way of the initial apprehension from the doubting fathers.
"It's long gone," she said.
Most of the players have only known having Arnold as their coach and they wouldn't have it any other way.
"I first started playing for them in the eighth grade and I was surprised, but I can honestly say I've never had better coaches in any sport I played," senior linebacker Bryson Tibbitts said. "They push you and they just don't make you do it, they make you want to do it.
"There is something different about the way they motivate, the way they teach and the way they coach. I've tried comparing them to other coaches and no one else comes close. I remember when about half the dads from team showed up that first week to see how these women were going to coach their boys in a man's sport. The first couple of drills were pretty intense and it set the tone.
"We've all grown together since and they haven't been back."
Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothills News staff writer, is an 18-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at email@example.com or 480-272-2449.