(Patagonia's 1988 state football championship team. Photo courtesy of Bill House.)
Patagonia High’s 1988 football team began that season believing it could repeat what it accomplished the year prior.
The team returned almost every cast member from the 1987 squad that ended its run with a championship performance, rewarding Patagonia with its first football state trophy. The 1988 season started at the same special place, an isolated piece of land in southern Arizona, that helped coach Bill House unite the Patagonia community and the first motley crews he coached at Patagonia High.
The preseason camps Patagonia held on that site near the border town of Sonoita is sacred ground for the players, but it also almost derailed the 1988 team.
Patagonia used blocking dummies during the camp one week before they were allowed to do so. It was a rule Patagonia unintentionally broke, but it kept House from coaching during the 1988 playoffs.
Motivated by its coach being suspended, Patagonia’s experienced team marched on to its second consecutive flawless season and state crown. The Arizona Interscholastic Association honors every year the former football champs that are celebrating their 25th anniversary.
Members of the 1988 Patagonia team will attend Saturday’s Division VI state title game at Shadow Mountain High School for a halftime celebration for the 1988 team. Like most of the teams that House coached at Patagonia, the 1988 team was a diverse, blue-collar group that responded well to House’s discipline doctrine.
“We were a cast of characters,” said Ramon De La Ossa, a lineman on the 1988 team. “We were pirates and needed a captain (House) to steer us in the right direction.”
House swashbuckled his was to a 7-2 record in his first season (1986) at Patagonia despite a 1-win season for that program in 1985.
The turnaround for Patagonia initiated when House was hired, but the players and coaches became a family at football camp, which was held on land that was owned by a Frank C. Brophy, Brophy High’s namesake. Brophy’s grandson, Bill, allowed Patagonia to use the land, and he also donated food and purchased Patagonia’s helmets.
But several Patagonia family and community members also pitched in to set up a camp at a scenic site that was converted into a high school football boot camp.
(Patagonia's football camp in 1988. Photo courtesy of Bill house.)
“Once you put on the uniforms, you couldn’t mess with anybody,” De La Ossa said. “They were all your brothers and would fight you to the death.”
By the time it returned home, Patagonia’s undivided bunch also helped unite its mining town.
Community members helped raise and purchase the stadium lights in the late 1980s that still stand at the school. Everything was in place in 1988 for Patagonia to succeed, which it did convincingly.
Led by one of the state’s biggest and better offensive lines in 8-man football in 1988 and a bruising yet humble running back, Arley McNeil, Patagonia 42-point ruled most of its regular season opponents. Its defense gave up just 110 points in 12 games (9.2 opponent points average per game).
When the playoffs rolled around, Patagonia was well prepared, even without its coach. House said he learned about three years ago that the players from his 1988 team sometimes changed the plays being called in from the sidelines during the 1988 playoffs.
They might have disobeyed orders, but Patagonia got the result it wanted, beating Scottsdale Christian 38-26 in the title game.
“You can only make do with what you have,” House said. “They (players) get all of the credit. Great coaches come from having great kids.”
Unfortunately, Patagonia lost one of those great kids two days before the school’s graduation ceremony during the 1988-89 school year.
Jerry Petolicchio, one of the offensive line’s leaders, died in a car accident.
“In my opinion he (Petolicchio) was the best lineman in the school’s history,” said De La Ossa, Petolicchio’s best friend. “He was the one that was the most responsible for helping McNeil get most of his yards. Jerry was a beast on the field, but a good person off it.”
McNeil holds the state’s all-class record for career points with 688 and is the Class 1A career state leader in rushing yards (5,760).
Petolicchio’s jersey number, No. 54, was retired and a plaque in his honor still hangs at Patagonia. About 10 former Patagonia players and House are planning to attend Saturday’s game.
Five of those players went on to coach high school sports, including current Patagonia football coach Howard Wykes, in Arizona.
“Some of the lessons I learned from coach House are the same ones I use today,” said De La Ossa, Rio Rico’s softball coach. “One of coach House’s favorite words was ‘again.’ He would say it over and over when he wanted us to run the same drill. I use that word a lot also during my practices.”
House, 64, lives in Goodyear and still is coaching.
He’s the girls volleyball coach at Goodyear Estrella Foothills, and House’s brother is renowned baseball pitching coach Tom House. House is writing a book about his 10-year experience at Patagonia.
“It was a coach’s dream having those kids,” House said.
House will be interviewed Saturday during the AZ Preps365 radio show on 620 AM between 9-11 a.m.
(Former Patagonia coach Bill House with his wife Peg and dog Apollo at their Goodyear home. Photo by Jose Garcia/aia365.com)