ELOY — James Fitzgerald has been named the new athletic director, physical education teacher and head football coach for Santa Cruz Valley, and while he is new, he is very familiar with the Dust Devils program.

In his long list of football coaching endeavors, Fitzgerald was a recruiting coordinator at Scottsdale Community College, where he recruited former Dust Devils Devin Neal and Alec Wyble Meza.

“I don’t expect people to buy in or trust me right away, but I’m a believer in this city and I’m a believer in this community,” Fitzgerald said. “I hope to build trust over time, and I hope to do a lot of community events and speak with a lot of different organizations that are in Eloy. I’m really trying to build up my connections here in town and get to know people that make this city so great. I’m here to build relationships, and I’m here to invest in the kids.”

While he’s been on the job just a little more than a week, Fitzgerald has already met a majority of returning members of the football team.

The start of the season is still a few months away, but the 29-year-old coach is ready to hit the ground running and will hold his first practice Tuesday.

“Being my age, I don’t try to be their dad,” Fitzgerald said. “I try to be someone that can mentor them. Someone that’s close enough in age that I can be relatable to them, and I try to use that to my advantage. I understand what they’re talking about, and I understand what they’re going through because it wasn’t that long ago that it was me. Not every kid needs an additional father figure in their life; they just need a mentor, they need someone to help them set goals. I would say it’s like a younger uncle or an older cousin, that’s typically the role that I try to field for these kids.”

Fitzgerald takes over the program that Rishard Davis resurrected and won the state championship last season for the first time since 1990.

“I’m excited,” Fitzgerald said. “I know there’s a lot of expectations, but I’d rather deal with great expectations than deal with no expectations. I’ve been in situations coming in as a head coach for an 0-10 team or a team that hasn’t had a winning record in 10 years and building it up that way.”

His philosophy for the Santa Cruz program is to instill that it is a community program. His personal philosophy is for the team to understand that football is a tool to help teach life skills.

“I don’t want them to be champions for one day, I want them to be champions for life,” he said. “Every day in the classroom, I want them building up to whatever their path may be; I want to teach them life skills that are transferable.”

Putting in a lot of time and effort in the weight room, he said, will keep the program on its continued successful path. He said the team’s camaraderie and self-motivation in the past is what set the program apart from other teams.

Born and raised in Arizona, Fitzgerald played Pop Warner football but was an undersized kid. He quickly figured out that his edge in the game would be his mind and his time spent watching film and studying the game is what led him to be an all-state defensive back at Chandler Valley Christian, where he also won a state championship in 2009.

“In college, I realized I’m not going into the NFL, I’m not going to play in the Pac-12 or anything like that so coaching was really my way of staying in the business,” he said. “At 19 years old, I was able to get a college coaching position and I was very fortunate for that and once I got my foot in the door, I’ve really just tried to grow every year because I truly believe you either get better or you get worse as a coach.”

Since graduating from high school, he has built up quite the resume, which includes coaching stops as an assistant at Scottsdale Community College, Tucson Pusch Ridge, Northern Arizona University and Brevard College in North Carolina.

One part of that lists marks a notable connection with Santa Cruz’s program: during his first season at Pusch Ridge, Davis was also on the coaching staff.

“[Davis] was the defensive line coach and I got to work with the defensive backs, and we were very successful that season,” Fitzgerald said. “I really enjoyed working with him there, and I’m a big fan of what he did at Santa Cruz. I’m excited to continue to build on the foundation that he’s laid down.”

His first head coaching job was for two years in Douglas. Fitzgerald comes to Santa Cruz from Valley Christian, where he was the offensive coordinator.

“This is always what I’ve wanted, is to be in a small town that supports football, and Santa Cruz is definitely that place,” he said. “I played in 2A football and my early start in coaching was in 2A-3A football, so I really like this level. I think you can have a greater impact on the kids because at a 6A school you have hundreds of kids and the head varsity coach probably doesn’t know half the freshmen.

“The smaller numbers let you get to know the kids, and being in a small town, you get to go to Pop Warner games, you get to be involved with middle school athletes and learn about their families. I think it’s awesome that as a coach you get to develop your plans around what you know these kids can do best.”

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Maria Vasquez is a reporter covering Eloy, Arizona City and sports. She can be reached at mvasquez@pinalcentral.com.