AWC takes on Mexican national champs in football opener

The Arizona Western College Matadors will open their football season Saturday with an international flavor – even though the game will be played in California.

AWC, which has climbed the national rankings since head coach Tom Minnick took over two years ago, will take their game to El Centro, Calif., where the Yuma junior college will meet Monterrey Tech University from Mexico City.

Actually, the game won’t be that far from Mexico, since El Centro is located in the Imperial Valley in southeast California, which borders both Arizona and Mexico.  It will be sponsored by the non-profit Holtville Athletic Club and played at the local high school, where many of the kids in the Valley will have their first opportunity to watch a college game live.

It will be a festive kick-off to the Matadors’ season, complete with halftime entertainment, ice cream from the famous Old Fashioned Ice Cream Machine, and barbecue provided by a competitive barbecue team from Imperial Valley.  The event will raise money for athletic teams at high schools in the area.

It will also give a couple of AWC players a chance to start their college careers on the same field they played on in high school.  Quarterback Jonathan ‘J.T.’ Adams and fullback/linebacker Cody Johnson were football standouts at Central Union HS before signing on with the Matadors.

AWC was a 2-8 team in 2007, before Minnick arrived from Joliet Community College in Illinois.  The Matadors went 5-5 in 2008 and started last season ranked 24th in the NJCAA preseason poll – thanks to cranked-up recruiting effort.

They climbed to No. 5 nationally, their highest national ranking since 1972 when AWC won the national championship.  They finished at No. 6 and earned their first invitation to a bowl since 1998, the Mississippi Bowl.  The Mats went 9-1 overall and won their first league title since 1981.

A couple of local high school products were instrumental in that 2009 squad – and got the attention of the four-year schools.

Zach Holmes, a linebacker from Sunnyside High School in Tucson, and Ben Swarts, a defensive lineman from Ironwood Ridge High School in Oro Valley, were among six members of the team who signed letters of intent.  Holmes will be playing for the University of Sioux Falls and Swarts is ready to step on the field at the University of Idaho.

Holmes was the team leader in overall tackles (89), solo tackles (34), and assisted tackles (55) and was a First Team All-Region I selection.  Swarts, who played fullback in high school, was the only Matador to see time on both offense and defense last year.  He racked up 44 tackles from his linebacker position, 17 of them solo tackles.

Although Holmes and Swarts have moved on, the cupboard isn’t bare.  The Matadors return sophomore running back, Reggie Bullock, the league’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2009, and wideout Ge’shun Harris, the team’s receiving yardage leader.

Bullock dominated the offense last year as a freshman.  He had a 96-yard touchdown run, the school’s longest play from scrimmage in over a decade; ran up four TD’s on a good Phoenix College team; and piled up 222 yards on Mesa CC.

Last year, the team got off to its best start since 1981 by beating four-time defending Region I champion, Snow College of Utah, in the opening game and then went on to win the first five contests.

The Matadors could use this year’s opener to catapult them into another title chase.  However, it won’t be any easier this year.

The Wild Rams of Monterrey Tech are the defending Mexican national champions and have won the national title 15 times.

(Photo: Arizona Western Athletics)