High school football
Sabino's Jay Campos preps for life after football as playoffs continue
Coach stepping down after season to focus on being ass't principal
Jay Campos knows his days are numbered but he’s not quite sure of the specifics.
The longtime Sabino football coach fully understood last weekend could have been the end. It sure would have been a gut-wrenching conclusion to a stellar run with the Sabercats but it wasn’t, thanks to a 45-7 victory in the first round of the state playoffs.
As a result, Campos earned at least one more week on the sidelines, knowing nothing more is guaranteed while so much more is still up for grabs.
Fifth-seeded Sabino will host No. 13 Winslow on Saturday night with a chance to move on to the 3A state semifinals and extend Campos’ career at least one more week. The 41-year-old coach is stepping down after this season to focus on his administrative duties as an assistant principal.
“It’s been a roller coaster, this year for me,” said Campos, who took over the program in 2003. “Knowing this could be my last one and knowing we have such a strong team, wanting to all the right things and putting ourselves in the best position, it’s been like no other year I’ve ever had, in terms of just being able to absorb it all.”
The Sabercats (10-1) have won eight straight games and are widely favored to be playing for a state championship Thanksgiving weekend. They are just one of seven Southern Arizona teams still alive in the playoffs, but the only local squad remaining in 3A.
Top-seeded Cienega, No. 3 Ironwood Ridge and No. 7 Marana all play in the 5A quarterfinals Thursday, the same night fourth-seeded Salpointe Catholic and No. 6 Catalina Foothills try to advance to the 4A state semifinals. Then fifth-seeded Benson plays at No. 4 Pima in the 2A quarterfinals also on Saturday night, leaving the Sabercats as the only show in town.
Being in the position is nothing new to Campos, but the surrounding circumstances are hard to ignore.
Sabino is in the postseason for the 15th straight season but is time hosting a quarterfinal game for the first time since 2011. Regardless of the outcome, this will be the team’s final game played at home this fall, because the two remaining rounds will be held at a neutral site.
“I like where we’re at right now,” said Campos, who has coached the Sabercats to 130 wins. “I think we have a good chance to do some great things.”
A victory Saturday would put the Sabercats one win from their first championship appearance in seven seasons and their third since Campos became coach. More importantly, a win would put Sabino one step closer to capturing its first state crown since 1998.
A loss, on the other hand, would put an inopportune end to a promising season and possibly Campos’ coaching career.
“I think about that all the time, especially as the season is winding down,” Campos said. “These games are winner moves on and loser goes home. You know there’s that finality there, that sense of urgency, that if we don’t take care of business this could be it for me.”
Campos isn’t quite sure what the future holds as far as being a football coach. He’s just happy he was able to coach this far, while climbing the administrative ranks. Being able to coach this year required special approval by TUSD, which doesn’t have any other assistant principal serving as a head coach.
Coming to this conclusion hasn’t been easy for Campos but he’s had help from a close friend and coaching colleague who went through a similar scenario two years ago. Nemer Hassey had to step down as Cienega’s football coach after he was hired to become the school’s principal. Whenever the end arrives, Campos will go through the same difficult transition Hassey went through, after spending so much time on the gridiron.
“I look at that stadium and I think about all the memories that we’ve had in there,” Campos said. “Both practice and games, all the hours spent there and all the kids and the relationships we’ve built on that field and I do get a little bit emotional about it because, guys like me, it’s hard to just say I’m done.”
Coincidentally, Hassey had similar success in his final season, leading his team to 11 wins and a trip to the Division II state semifinals. Campos isn’t surprised about the success this year, because of the time this group has spent together. A handful of current players were on varsity as sophomores and last year’s playoff team was loaded with juniors. Fighting through some growing pains is now paying off.
“Usually you have a group for one, maybe two years, and the next guys come up,” Campos said. “But you have these exceptions like we have right now where we’ve played a lot of football together.”
The goal is to play three more games together and the chances of that happening are solid, as long as Sabino continues playing as it has been. The possibility of Campos going out by winning his first state championship would be nothing short of special.
“A storybook ending would be phenomenal,” Campos said. “But we know that, at the end of the day, it’s going to take execution, it’s going to take discipline, it’s going to take focus – it’s going to take a lot of different things that we can control to be able to get this thing done.”