Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Tyrone Armstrong shouts words of encouragement to the players on his Rancho High football team at the start of an involuntary spring practice this week.
The coach is animated in his motivational methods, hoping to continue the progress a few players made last fall.
Despite not having a victory since 2011 and being outscored 1,004-82 the past two seasons, the Rams are improving. Armstrong, an eternal optimist, won’t view it any other way.
He’s determined to build the program into competitiveness and can sense better results are on the horizon. He just needs a little help.
That’s why Rancho administrators last month approached the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association’s Board of Control with an unorthodox idea of playing an independent schedule next fall.
It’s an unprecedented move for a Las Vegas-area team, but Rancho officials feel it's the lone way for the program to continue its slow growth.
Rancho competes in Division I, which is the state’s highest classification. Most Friday nights, the Rams lose by lopsided scores and the second half is played under the mercy rule of a running clock.
The proposal, which will likely be voted on during the board’s June meeting, would call for Rancho football — not the Rams’ other programs — to play schools mostly from the lower Division I-A.
The lower league comprises small-town schools such as Pahrump Valley and other struggling Las Vegas schools such as Western and Chaparral. Most in that classification also struggle to fill roster spots or have other problems because of limited financial resources.
“We are in the building stages. Things are changing,” Armstrong said. “The kids are noticing the changes. We are starting to get a few numbers. But we want more. I’m greedy like that.”
Last year, when most players in the Rancho program were new to the sport, Armstrong was forced to play sophomores on the varsity team and freshmen on the junior varsity team because of a lack of participation. Rancho didn’t field a ninth-grade team.
It was impossible to develop players when they were overwhelmed on virtually every play. And, more important for Rancho officials, the beatings turned out being more than what the scoreboard showed. In the past two seasons, 27 players have suffered a concussion, Rancho Principal James Kuzma said.
“Our kids have played with pride the last two years,” Kuzma said. “They stuck with it, even though they were getting pounded on a Friday night.”
The NIAA is scheduled to realign schools in June under the 2012 Nevada Rubric, which was adopted two years ago to send struggling schools to the lower level and out of harm’s way against powerhouses such as Centennial and Coronado.
Rancho is on the cusp of being sent down under this formula but could earn enough points during the spring to stay in Division I because its baseball program is one of the state’s best. But if the baseball team is upset in the playoffs, Rancho football wouldn’t have to worry about its independent schedule request — all the school’s teams would shipped to Division I-A.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing, Kuzma says. Because of Rancho’s popular aviation and medical magnet program, most teams have been able to survive and make playoff appearances using players at Rancho for the magnet program. But football has few enrolled in the magnet program, fielding its roster with players from the economically unstable neighborhood near downtown.
“Our football team hasn’t been competitive the past two years,” Kuzma said. “(In) our other sports, we aren’t winning state titles, but we are competitive.”
Becoming competitive is Armstrong’s sole mission.
The Rams average about 35 players for each spring workout, starting with conditioning drills outside before heading into the weight room.
Armstrong doesn’t hesitate to brag about the progress. Last year, the team had just six players qualify for a valleywide weightlifting competition. This year, it had 13.
Developing stronger and more athletic players is paramount in fielding a competitive team. Last year, the Rams beat Valley on the junior varsity level — a nice notch on the belt considering most of the key contributors in the win were freshmen.
“They couldn’t compete (at the beginning of the season) at all because they had never played,” Armstrong said of his first-time players. “But we gave them the opportunity to play, and we saw some growth out of a few of them. They learned what this game is about.”
In August, Rancho will travel to California to open the season against Calabasas High, which also went winless last year. Still, the game will surely be a step up in competition, which Armstrong knows is a must to continue the improvement.
Plus, if his team winds up playing an independent schedule, it will need help finding opponents for a nine-game schedule. Scheduling is the most significant drawback of going independent. The other, of course, is not being eligible for the playoffs.
Rancho would still play the annual “Bone Game” against Division-I Las Vegas High. Although Las Vegas has won 18 straight games in the series, beating the Rams by a rivalry record 70-6 last season, the game is still considered one of the best traditions in local football.
That leaves seven weeks of games for Rancho to find an opponent for. In September, when other Las Vegas schools haven’t started league play, scheduling isn’t a concern. Once league play starts, it could be a different story.
“Everyone is locked into league games,” Armstrong said. “That’s going to be the toughest part of going independent. It could be stepping out of the fry pan and into fire.”
But Armstrong is willing to try anything. He’s coached more than two decades in Southern Nevada, watching the area blossom from about a dozen schools to more than 30. In those days, around the late 1980s or early 1990s, Rancho wasn’t just winning games. It was hanging championship banners.
“We’re going to give these kids an opportunity to grow and turn this thing around,” Armstrong said.