The Star's longtime columnist checks in with notes about Mike Candrea, Keoni DeRenne, Stanley Johnson and a high school underclassman who could help turn around the Wildcats' football program.
Pima County's newest inductees persevered
As a group, the 2021 Pima County Sports Hall of Fame class would seem to have had a trouble-free ride to careers in the NFL and to MLB, to becoming All-Americans, national champions, Pac-10 players of the year and Final Four coaches.
It was anything but.
Salpointe Catholic and UA grad Jay John, who is the only Tucsonan to be a head coach in Pac-12 basketball or football, was a walk-on football and basketball player at NAU.
"After my first year at NAU, the football coach said maybe I should concentrate on basketball," John said during a news conference last week at the DoubleTree Hotel. "Then the basketball coach told me maybe I should concentrate on football."
Undeterred, John returned to Tucson and became a biology teacher, freshman football and basketball coach at Salpointe Catholic High School. His goal was to be his alma mater’s varsity basketball coach, but he discovered that road wasn’t going to be available. A young basketball coach, Jim Flannery, had just been hired. Flannery went on to become a Pima County Sports Hall of Famer.
John took a detour. He coached junior college basketball in New York, of all places. He coached at Butler, Oregon and for the San Francisco Dons before Lute Olson hired him to be an assistant coach at Arizona, a run that included the 2001 Final Four.
That provided the platform for John to become the head coach at Oregon State. He is now an associate athletic director at Cal.
"It’s been a long road but a very enjoyable one," John said.
Banni Redhair Bunting, PCSHOF Class of 2021, was about five minutes from winning the state tennis singles championship as a Canyon del Oro sophomore in 1986. But an ankle injury forced her to forfeit in the final set. Undeterred, she returned to win the 1987 state title. In 1992, she became an academic and tennis All-American at Arizona.
A few years later, she graduated No. 1 in her class at the FBI training academy, becoming an FBI agent. "I worked in white-collar crime," she said. Then she became an author, tennis instructor and an authority on inner mindfulness and self-fulfillment.
She modesty says she isn't even the best athlete in her family. Her father, Tucson attorney Jack Redhair, was a starting UA halfback in the late 1950s. Her brother, Mike, was a starting point guard at ASU in 1989 and 1990. Her mother, Diane, was a state badminton champion and age-group tennis champion.
Adversity was a good teacher to the Class of 2021.
Sahuaro High School pitcher John Butcher, who would go on to pitch seven years in the big leagues in the 1980s, injured his elbow while playing in the state basketball playoffs for Sahuaro’s four-time state championship coach Dick McConnell. Butcher returned to baseball before his injury fully healed.
"One game, all the big scouts were there, along with coaches from Arizona, ASU, USC, all to watch me pitch," Butcher remembers. "But I gave up six runs in the first inning before getting anyone out. The scouts and coaches all went home."
Instead of going to a big-name school, Butcher went to Yavapai College. He led them to the 1977 NJCAA national title. He was the third overall choice in the next month’s draft, Like John and Redhair, Butcher had to overcome adversity before he became a Hall of Famer.
As a state championship linebacker at Amphitheater High School in 1979, Sam Merriman was considered a bit too small, maybe too slow, to be a major-college linebacker. His main sport was rodeo. He grew up on a Tucson ranch.
When Idaho sent young assistant coach Rich Ellerson to recruit Merriman — yes, that Rich Ellerson, architect of Arizona’s "Desert Swarm" defenses of the early 1990s — Merriman was cleaning up after the pigs in at his family’s ranch.
"Rich sat on the fence and watched," Merriman says. "When I got to Idaho I had a nickname: 'Pig Pen.'"
Yet Merriman went on to set a still-standing Idaho record with 519 tackles, played five years for the NFL's Seattle Seahawks and is now one of the chief operatives of the Tucson Rodeo Committee. At 60, Merriman looks like he could make another 519 tackles, even if he wore his ever-present cowboy hat.
The PCSHOF Class of 2021 will be inducted at a Nov. 14 banquet at the DoubleTree. The overcoming-adversity stories should entertain all in the audience.
Catalina High School graduate May Mickelsen Warren, who fought early 1960s discrimination to become part of the UA varsity rifle team — an all-men’s team — became a national champion. But she first had to go through a demeaning process in which UA athletic director Dick Clausen was forced to rule that she could receive a letterman’s sweater.
A year later, Mickelson was elected the team captain. In 2017, she won yet another national shooting championship.
"If it had been easy," she says now, "I wouldn't have appreciated it as much."
Mike Candrea enjoying new role as mentor to UA coaches
Arizona has a record six new head coaches this year: football, softball, soccer, baseball, cross country and men’s basketball. It has been perfect timing for newly retired softball icon Mike Candrea to serve as a mentor to all.
"I’ve had conversations with Jedd Fisch and Tommy Lloyd," said Candrea. "I think both are the right man for the job.
"I’ve been to swimming practices. I’ve met with (track coach) Fred Harvey. I think (softball coach) Caitlin Lowe is a winner. Everything she’s done has been exceptional. I feel good about her. I feel the program is in great hands."
The UA didn’t have time to properly honor Candrea’s 36-year career when he retired in late June. He left Tucson to be an advisor to Italy’s Olympic softball team. The school is planning to have a celebration of Candrea’s career and eight national championships in January.
Anything less than announcing plans to erect a statue of Candrea at the entrance to Hillenbrand Stadium would make the celebration incomplete.
On Thursday, Candrea was presented with the Dick Tomey Arizona Strong Award at the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl Kickoff Luncheon at the Tucson Convention Center. Tomey and Candrea were close friends, golf buddies for 15 years.
"For me, life has been absolutely wonderful, every day is a Saturday," said Candrea. "I do some work with the athletic department to stay busy — but not too busy."
Bulls waive ex-Wildcat Stanley Johnson
Stanley Johnson, a McDonald’s All-American who was considered the No. 5 overall recruit in the Class of 2014, is out of basketball. He is only 25. Johnson, from Mater Dei High School near Los Angeles, was Sean Miller’s prize recruit, part of the UA’s 2015 Elite Eight team and Pac-12 champs. But his NBA career never gained momentum. He started just 77 games in eight seasons, averaging 19 minutes per game for three teams. Last week, Johnson was waived by the Chicago Bulls, viewed as a player whose offensive game didn’t develop and who wasn’t a strong enough defensive presence to occupy a roster spot. Johnson earned $20.3 million in his NBA years.
Hakim Rasul's son playing with Bronny James
In the late 1990s, Pueblo High School was a basketball powerhouse that disappointingly fell short in the state playoffs every year. Pueblo’s roster of Hakim Rasul, Sammy Wade, Mical Kidd, Bam McRae and others was about as good as it gets in Tucson prep basketball. Now, a generation later, Rasul’s son, Malik Rasul, is teammates with Bronny James, son of LeBron James, on the touted Sierra Canyon High School team in Southern California. Rasul is a sophomore forward.
Bob Garis dies at 82
Sad to learn of the death of Bob Garis, one of the most important football players in UA history. Garis, co-captain of Arizona’s historic 8-1-1 football team in 1961, graduated from Tucson High School and was a two-way starter for the Wildcats under coach Jim LaRue. He was an all-state lineman in 1957 and was in training camp with the San Diego Chargers in 1962. Garis was 82. A memorial service for Garis will be held at 10 a.m. on Nov. 7 at the Lodge on the Desert, homecoming weekend for the UA-Cal game.
Ex-Cat Keoni DeRenne makes big leagues … as a coach
Keoni DeRenne, a standout shortstop on coach Jerry Stitt’s 1999 NCAA regional baseball team, has finally reached the major leagues. DeRenne was hired last week to be a hitting coach for the Kansas City Royals. An All-Pac-10 first team selection in 1999 and 2000, DeRenne played 11 years in the minor leagues. He has been a minor league coach in the Cubs, Pirates and Royals’ systems for seven years. DeRenne hit .361 for Arizona’s NCAA team of ’99, stealing 22 bases.
Bryanna Cote dominates
Tucsonan Bryanna Cote, a Canyon del Oro High School grad who has been a member of the Team USA Bowling squad six times since 2011, was a dominant figure in the 2021 PanAm Bowling Championships last week in Cali, Colombia. Cote not only led Team USA to the gold medal, but was the No.1 overall finisher in the Champion of Champions women's competition. Cote, a former NCAA bowler of the year, won the PWBA championship in Arlington, Texas, in January, her first victory on tour in five years. Now, at 35, she is having one of the best years of her career.
Trevor Hoffman talks NIL rules, openers
Baseball Hall of Fame pitcher Trevor Hoffman was honored by the Barstool Sports Arizona Bowl on Thursday. The 1989 Arizona All-Pac-10 shortstop said that he is glad that baseball’s 2020s unorthodox strategy of using an "opener" — a relief pitcher as an emergency, one-inning starting pitcher — was not in use during the time he broke MLB’s career saves record. "I still feel there is a better way, an old-school way of doing things," said Hoffman. "It has just kind of gotten out of whack." Hoffman also said that the NCAA's new name, image and likeness policy that allows college athletes to endorse products and earn thousands of dollars would’ve probably benefited his 1989 teammates, especially future big-leaguers like J.T. Snow and Scott Erickson. “I think they’re in the process of finding out what’s right and what’s wrong. What’s the right balance?" Hoffman said. “My generation was more about being quiet and going about your business. Now they’re trying to monetize everything. It’ll take some getting used to."
My two cents: Budding QB star has Arizona bloodlines
Could it be that the UA’s long-awaited, long-overdue quarterback-of-the-future played in a junior varsity game at Salpointe Catholic on Sept. 30?
Mason Bray, a freshman at Scottsdale Saguaro High School — Arizona’s leading prep football school over the last 15 years — led his team over Salpointe, 50-12. Last week, he led Saguaro’s JV to a 40-21 victory over previously undefeated Horizon High School, another of the Phoenix prep superpowers.
In that game, Bray completed 18 of 22 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. More impressively, the dual-threat QB rushed 13 times for 239 yards and three touchdowns. It came off like a Khalil Tate game of 2017.
Bray has bloodlines to UA football like few other football prospects. His father, Heath Bray, was a team captain on Dick Tomey’s 1992 club, the first year of the "Desert Swarm" period. His mother, Ali Smith, is the daughter of former Arizona football coach Larry Smith.
When Arizona played UCLA at Arizona Stadium earlier this month, Heath and Mason Bray were standing on the sidelines at Arizona Stadium wearing all-access passes.
Mason Bray is part of the Class of 2024, which means he has two more years to develop as a Pac-12 quality quarterback. But unlike so many of those with UA connections who got away — from Texas running back Bijan Robinson to Washington lineman Matteo Mele — UA coaches know all about young Mason Bray and his Wildcat legacy.