Mean Season

Queen Creek is such a desolate place that when the Arizona Boys Ranch Spartans play football on a Friday, the lights of the stadium become a beacon in the desert.

On October 15, the lights are blazing for the Spartans' homecoming game, but the spectators are getting bored.

The inept Boys Ranch team -- a once-feared 3A high school Goliath -- is actually playing its most competitive football of the year, trailing the Sahuarita Mustangs by only seven points midway through the second quarter. But a palpable fatigue is spreading through the crowd.

Officials of the Boys Ranch -- a 50-year-old privately operated reform school for juvenile offenders -- have tried to create a celebratory homecoming flavor for this game. The home bleachers are adorned with dozens of green and white balloons (the Spartans' colors). Banners dutifully proclaim: "We Love Spartan Football," "Stomp the Mustangs," and "ABR Pride."

Most important, the paltry crowd that typically turns out for Boys Ranch home games (often less than 30 people) is bolstered by more than a dozen parents visiting from out of state. There are also about 100 Marines from Camp Pendleton in California, who happen to be on campus this week for training exercises. It's not exactly Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Saturday afternoon, but compared to most Boys Ranch games, the house is rocking.

But all the banners and balloons can't hide the fact that this is no normal high school, and this is no normal homecoming. Most of these kids are hard-core juvenile delinquents from Indiana, not Arizona. They were sent by judges who decided the Boys Ranch was a promising alternative to a detention facility.

There will be no coronation ceremonies, no postgame dances at the gym. This school has no cheerleaders and no band. Unlike such powerhouses as Desert Vista or Mountain View, where walking around with a letterman jacket gets you cachet on campus and acclaim in the community, playing football at the Boys Ranch merely means you get to spend two less hours a day baking in the sun on work detail, because you're spending those two hours baking in the sun at football practice.

At most high schools, when the game's over, you get in your car and drive off to hang with your friends. At the Boys Ranch, you're walked back to your supervised cottage, where you do homework before going to bed.

Maybe it's a sense of this bleak reality -- on top of a winless season -- that's spreading through the crowd in the second quarter against Sahuarita. But just as the energy level begins to ebb, the Marines get rowdy. They start chanting "We want number three," a tribute to tiny freshman running back Andre Taylor, who looks about four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than his 5-foot-3, 100-pound listing in the team program. Taylor never gets into games, and is rarely acknowledged by coaches, unless they're chewing him out for loafing through sprints in practice or not cheering for his teammates during the games.

But because Taylor is so much smaller than everyone else on the team, the Marines instantly adopt him as their favorite player. Each time they chant his number, several of his teammates respond by hoisting him on their shoulders. Eventually, the Marines start calling him Bobby Boucher, the name of Adam Sandler's character in The Waterboy. A new chant starts:

"We want Bobby Boucher! We want Bobby Boucher!"

Again, the Boys Ranch players lift Taylor in the air.

Finally, assistant coach Pat Taylor has had enough of this merriment. He turns to the jovial players with a glare that could scorch metal and bellows: "Knock it off!"

Taylor is one of four coaches on the Boys Ranch staff with NFL playing experience, and he won't abide a cheerful attitude about losing. To him, defeat is a knife in your gut that tears you up inside.

But for his players, defeat is their most faithful companion. Eight games into a nine-game season, the Spartans have been outscored 320 to 18. They have been mercilessly drubbed in every game, usually falling behind by four or five touchdowns in the first half.

It's a steep, painful drop for a football program that had built an impressive 40-17 record since debuting in 1994, and made it to the state finals three years straight, from 1995 through 1997.

Before this season, football was a major part of life at the Queen Creek campus. It was the one obvious source of pride in an otherwise joyless atmosphere. It was a way for the Boys Ranch to tell the community -- not to mention judges and probation officers -- that this facility must be doing something right.