For Chuck Esquivel, 2002 is only a blink away.
His final season as Ironwood’s head football coach saw the Eagles write one of Arizona’s more endearing underdog stories.
One of the smallest schools in the 5A conference knocked off three unbeaten squads in the playoffs to make the state finals as a No. 11 seed. Ten years later, Esquivel has many mental snapshots of that special season.
“Beating Desert Vista when Brett Hanten scored on an interception with like a minute and a half left and he came off the field with tears in his eyes ... that chokes me up still,” he said. “Going to (Tucson) Salpointe and playing in the pouring rain. We had more fans than they did. We beat a pretty good team there.”
Their journey stands out more now, in an era bereft of Cinderella stories. And in the Eagles’ case, the slipper fits.
Ironwood was a budding 4A power coming off title game losses in 1995 and 1996 when the Glendale school’s enrollment crept above the cutoff line for 5A. The Eagles began 5A play in 1997, Esquivel’s second season as the head man, and keeping up with big schools was a struggle.
Playoff appearances were rare. In 2001, even with one of Arizona’s top quarterbacks in junior Jason Murietta, the Eagles finished under .500.
Few outside of the squad expected a playoff berth, much less a state title bid. At the time, Mountain Ridge and Peoria were the local 5A powerhouses and were edging closer to a shot at the East Valley titans.
“I would not have predicted it for the world. The kids, all along they believed,” Esquivel said.
Their faith was tested in a season-opening 21-14 loss to Tempe Marcos de Niza after leading 14-0. Esquivel blamed himself for not making adjustments with a halftime lead.
But the loss ended up sparking the team. Ironwood started to roll up the points and wins as Murietta, 2,000-yard tailback Aaron Laffite and all-region tight end Corey Jenkins operated behind a large offensive line.
“Jason is an athlete you do not get to coach that often, he is a rare breed. He is a tremendous competitor and it does not matter what you are playing, he wants to win more than anything,” said Dan Filleman, offensive coordinator in 2002. “When the game is on the line we knew the ball would be in his hands and he was going to make it happen.”
Ironwood also thrived thanks to the staff Esquivel assembled, featuring current Ironwood coach Ian Curtis (offensive line), Liberty coach Filleman and now Glendale Community College assistant Mark Gronewold.
“It wasn’t me, by any means. My assistant coaches did an awesome job,” Esquivel said. “I probably held them back. Coach Curtis and I were talking about it and he told me, “You probably fired each of us once during the season.’ I don’t remember it but things happen in the heat of the game.”
Following their opening loss, the Eagles churned through Northwest Region play until a showdown for the title with Mountain Ridge. In 2002, the Mountain Lions were at their apex as a football program, with an enrollment of nearly 3,000 to draw from and the coaching acumen of Steve Belles, who is now at powerhouse Chandler Hamilton.
Ironwood helped the Mountain Lions by committing six turnovers before drawing to within a touchdown near the end of the game. The pit, however, was too deep and the Mountain Lions claimed the region crown.
Still, the team looked primed to end the regular season at 8-2 and host a playoff game as the No. 6 or 7 seed. Then the season, described by Curtis as “screwy,” took another turn.
A player that joined the team and played in the Goldwater game lied on his paperwork. Ironwood found out about the violation, reported it to the Arizona Interscholastic Association and had to forfeit the blowout win.
Instead of opening the playoffs at home, the Eagles were a No. 11 seed faced with a trip to play a 10-0 Desert Vista team in Ahwatukee.
Though coach Jim Rattay had left the program, the Thunder were at the time one of three new, large and wealthy schools — along with Hamilton and Mountain Ridge — challenging the Mesa schools that dominated the 5A conference.
“They had several Division I football players. Athletically, we didn’t match up well against them,” Curtis said. “Our kids just got after them from the get-go. Honestly, we had no business competing against that team.”
Hanten’s interception return gave the Eagles a 26-21 upset. Coaches credited the win to the unheralded defense, led by Bailey Flynn, Scott Buchannan and Darin Brueggeman.
Their reward? Another road trip to an undefeated foe.
This time, the Eagles survived a 39-34 shootout at 11-0 No. 3 Salpointe, Tucson’s top team. That led to a semifinal against the one undefeated team Ironwood longed to play — Mountain Ridge.
“After that (regular-season) game, we said we shouldn’t have lost that game. I was so glad we played them in the semis,” Esquivel said.
It showed. Ironwood grabbed control early and cruised to a 32-13 win.
Curtis’ most vivid memories of this de facto West Valley championship game were of the crowd at Glendale Community College. He said the stadium was packed with fans spilling out onto the track, to the point that neither school’s spirit line had room to do their cheers.
The magical run came crashing down in the 5A title game against Mountain View. The Toros’ 50-8 win still stands as the largest margin of victory in a big-school championship game.
But time and perspective have softened the sting of that loss. Ten year later, that Mountain View team is considered one of the five best in Arizona’s history, thanks to the exploits of former Arizona Cardinals quarterback Max Hall and a defense with numbers so astounding they look like a misprint.
“(Then Mountain View coach) Tom Joseph’s a good friend of mind, and he’s really humble. He never thought that was their best team ever,” Esquivel said. “But when their defensive coach told me they had only allowed 28 points all season — that’s unheard of.”
It was the final game of Esquivel’s varsity coaching career, as he decided to retire before the 2002 season. He was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in 2001.
Murietta was the most decorated quarterback in Northern Arizona University history and played for the Arizona Rattlers 2012 champions. Laffite went to Wabash College in Indiana, where he broke the freshman rushing record and was the program’s first 1,000-yard back.
Aaron was just fun to watch,” Filleman said. “He would not go down, he would break tackles, keep his feet and run people over. We would tell the refs before the game to not blow the whistle too quick because he is going to keep going. “
Jenkins, Flynn, Brian Gronewold, Beaux Babinchak, Brueggeman, Justin Tyler, Hanten and Robbie Trent all played in college.
Esquivel was briefly the athletic director at Kellis High School. He said he didn’t enjoy working in administration and came back to Ironwood. He started coaching the Eagles freshmen in 2005.
In 2006, Filleman became the first coach at Liberty and Curtis joined him as defensive coordinator. When the Ironwood job opened after the 2009 season, Esquivel recommended Curtis.