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Youngker’s new coach excited for future

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Tony Cluff, above, is succeeding Kelly Epley as football coach at Youngker. (West Valley View Photo by Ray Thomas)

By Casey Pritchard

Tony Cluff is experiencing déjà vu.

This season, Youngker’s new head football coach is succeeding Kelly Epley, the same man he worked under at Agua Fria before eventually taking over that program in 2013. It’s a similar situation, but at a different school.

“I came out here (after being let go) at Agua Fria. It was time for a fresh start, and Kelly gave it to me again,” Cluff said. “He gave me my start at Agua Fria. I was coaching freshman when he got hired and he pulled me up and kind of showed me the ropes, taught me a lot about football and a lot about kids. It was good to come out and work for him last year, and take it over for him. Yeah, a little bit of déjà vu.”

Cluff worked at Agua Fria for 21 years, 10 of which were under Epley. During that time, Cluff learned several valuable lessons.

“He brought a lot of discipline,” Cluff said. “We do the right thing no matter what. We’re going to win with dignity. We’re going to lose with dignity. We’re going to do things the right way no matter what the kids are doing on other teams.”

Cluff spent last year as the Roughriders’ defensive coordinator, and he was also the head wrestling coach. Both experiences helped familiarize Cluff with the athletes at Youngker, and he thinks they’ve adapted well to him in his new role with the football team, he said.

“Being on the staff last year, they all got to know me, so it wasn’t a big shock,” Cluff said. “I may be a little softer than Kelly, so some of these kids may respond a little better to that, but I think it’s gone well. I think they seem to be happy.”

Senior Chris Rogers, who plays offensive and defensive line for Youngker, said the coaching change has been positive.

“Coach Epley was a good coach, but his ways were different and people didn’t understand how he coached,” Rogers said. “With this staff, it’s more people enjoying it, understanding it, and we’re not afraid to make mistakes like before.”

Cluff implemented workouts four days a week during the summer to help prepare for the upcoming season. A big emphasis was on lifting weights.

“We start with some speed and agility, then core stuff, then we got our lift on,” Cluff said. “Every day after lifting, we throw the ball around. Every day we did everything, Monday through Thursday, to get these kids used to doing what it takes, and they responded great.”

The summer turnout was good, as numbers were up significantly from last year, Cluff said.

“I’ve got such a great group of kids. It’s been amazing,” Cluff said. “I’ve had at least 65-70 in the weight room every morning, which is probably 30 more than we had last year. We averaged about 25 incoming freshman a day. Last year, I think we had four. It’s spreading. The word is spreading, and now we just have to capitalize on that and keep it moving.”

Quarterback Shane Cruz said Cluff has changed the way things are done, and Cruz is excited for the upcoming season.

“He’s more interactive with us. It’s a lot more fun at practices; we all have a good time,” Cruz said. “It made football a lot more enjoyable.”

Youngker’s football team has never had a winning season in eight years of varsity competition. A 4-6 mark in 2012 was its best finish.

Last year, the Roughriders were 2-9. Cluff hopes to turn things around, but said for that to happen, the atmosphere at the school has to change.

“It’s a brand-new school, and without being completely mean, they’re used to mediocrity, and they’re OK with it,” Cluff said. “So, the big thing I’m trying to teach is it’s not OK to just go through and be happy with it. Take that next step. I’ve got great support from the front office. I said, if we’re going to change the school, the football team is going to change the school. They’re behind it.”

Cluff said he knows that’s a lot to take on, but he’s ready for the challenge.

“You look at schools like [Chandler] Hamilton with successful football programs, they also have successful academics,” Cluff said.

“(Administration) sees that hand in hand, and they kind of put a lot of pressure on me, but I love it, I’ll take it. We want to change the culture in the football program, and have that bleed over onto the school.”

Youngker spent four days at camp July 17-20 in Show Low, and just began practicing for the regular season. The Roughriders’ first game is August 18 at El Mirage Dysart.

“I’m super excited,” Cluff said of the upcoming season. “I’m exactly where I want to be right now. I love my teaching job. The administration backs me 100 percent. I think last year we turned the wrestling program around, and I think we’re going to continue with the kind of things, and maybe move on from some of the things coach Epley brought. It’s an exciting place to be right now. I’ve got a great staff and a great group of kids right now.”

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