Santa Cruz football

Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils: front left, Juan Flores, Haloa Hall, Adrian Brown, Robert Maldonado, Ricardo Alaniz, Apollo Silva Jr., Tanzer Gil, Roy Leon, Roman Belloc, Davin Ethington. Middle row, Max V. Rodriguez, Thamas Harris, Kaydence Salas, Shonluis Banda, Jared Rodriquez, O’Ryan Williams, Estevan Guillen, Joshua Rodriguez, Jonathan Ramo, Sonny Bridgewater, Zachary Peralez. Back row, Jesus Novoa, Jaylan Rodriguez, Nicolas Manuel, Nathan Hanis, Juan Guanajuato, Diarian Mahaney, Julian Armenta, Elias Armenta, Jesus Santos, Erick Lucio, Esequil Perez, Josiah Munoz, Jose Ororzco.

ELOY — The Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils are coming off a fantastic 2020-21 season. With their only loss last year coming at the hands of 4A Casa Grande Union, the Dust Devils were riding high, and captured their first state championship since 1990.

Even with that undoubtable success, the team will go into the new season with a target on their back as the reigning 2A conference champions, all while learning a new scheme from a new head coach. James Fitzgerald was given the job after former head coach Rishard Davis decided to head back to his home state of Alabama.

Fitzgerald does not shy away from the expectations of the team, and simply aims to continue to build the program after Davis laid the groundwork during his time in Eloy.

“I look at it as there has been a good foundation created by coach Davis, his staff and the community, I’m just trying to build on top of that foundation,” Fitzgerald said. “Just trying to develop skills a little bit more and make more complete players. I’d rather deal with big expectations than no expectations.”

The new head coach mentioned that the team is meshing well under the new system, saying that they have adapted well, but the basics have stayed the same.

Lineman Tanzor Gil is one of the marquee returning players from last year’s championship team. The six feet, two inch senior plays a huge role on both the offensive and defensive line. Fitzgerald sees Gil as a great leader for the team, who is more than willing to help his teammates improve.

“What I love about Taz is that he really cares about every single kid in his group getting better, whether it’s a freshman or a senior,” Fitzgerald said. “He wants to bring those guys up to his level, and that’s a big deal when the biggest and strongest looking dude on the team is willing to help some of the smaller guys on the team in the weight room or on the field.”

Although the expectations for this Dust Devil group are high, the team is ready to prove the doubters wrong by continuing to shine under lights on Friday nights. Gil said that it is a cool feeling coming into the season as the previous champions, but he knows that teams are going to be coming after them this year, so they have to be prepared for it.

Senior running back Ricardo Alaniz will be stepping into the starting role this year, after backing up recently graduated Hunter Ogle.

“I think that we are kind of used to always having a target on our backs, cause we’re from Eloy,” Alaniz said. “So a lot of teams want to come out here and say that they beat us.”

This is a sentiment that Fitzgerald agrees with, speaking on how every team in the 2A conference has them on their radar.

“I tell these guys all the time, they’re not the underdogs anymore, so they still need to have that fight and drive , even though they went from being the hunters to the hunted,” Fitzgerald said. “Everybody wants to knock us off, everybody wants to beat us. So we have to go up against ourselves as hard as we can every single day so that whatever opponent we play takes care of itself.”

The Dust Devils will get their first chance to start the season on the right foot, when they kickoff their 2021-22 campaign Aug. 27 on the road against San Tan Charter.

Friday Night Spotlight game of the week Santa Cruz Valley at San Tan Charter.

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David Church is a reporter covering Eloy, Arizona City and sports. He can be reached at dchurch@pinalcentral.com.