Devil of a team in Apple Valley

This is easily the best team in the seven-year tenure of coach Frank Pulice, the former Covina High School and San Diego State player..

The High Desert of Southern California is a gritty place.


It is brutally hot in the summer and teeth-chattering cold in the winter, and with a strong wind that whips through the Mojave Desert every day at about 2 p.m.


Until recently its most famous resident was Roy Rogers, the late crooning cowboy who made Apple Valley his home.


Although Roy Rogers is gone and his museum in Victorville has moved to Missouri, there is a team in the High Desert that is putting the area on the map. It is the Apple Valley Sun Devils, 7-0 heading into tonight's Mojave River League showdown at Phelan Serrano (4-3, 1-1).


This is easily the best team in the seven-year tenure of coach Frank Pulice, the former Covina High School and San Diego State player. Until this season, Pulice's teams had won only 19 games in six years, including three 1-9 seasons.


The fact that another school, Granite Hills, opened across town, didn't help.


"Granite Hills opened during my first year in 2000," Pulice said. "They take away a lot of talent. We played them last week and we were looking at some of the players and thinking what a heck of a team we'd have if there was just one school."


Once at a bustling 3,000-plus students, Apple Valley played in the old Division I of CIF-Southern Section football against the likes of former powerhouses such as Rialto Eisenhower and Fontana. But both Eisenhower and Fontana have weak teams now, both being winless heading into their game against each other tonight.


Apple Valley? It is somehow thriving in the MRL, where only Lake Arrowhead Rim of the World (1,800 students) has a smaller enrollment than Apple Valley (1,850).  Ironically, Apple Valley and Rim - both 1-0 in league - are headed for what promises to be an epic showdown next Friday at Apple Valley's Newton T. Bass Stadium.


Asked if there was anything to indicate this would be a special season, Pulice said: "We went 7-4 last season and lost 43-35 at Palm Springs in the playoffs. We were within one possession of tying that game and we had seven juniors on offense."


Palm Springs eventually lost to Ridgecrest Burroughs in the CIF D8 title


Those promising Apple Valley juniors are seniors now, and pummeling the competition.


Pulice said he simply has a special collection of athletes, one that happens to magically arrive at a school at the same time, once every decade, or maybe quarter-century.


The Sun Devils haven't been unbeaten this late in the season since 1984 when it started 8-0 under former coach Dan Hook, now the school's assistant principal and a valued advisor and source of wisdom for Pulice. That '84 team finished as tri-champions of the San Andreas League and went 10-2 overall.


Tailback Anthony Ambers (1,120 yards rushing, seven touchdowns) leads this year's Sun Devils. He is aided on offense by junior quarterback Phil Rivera (700 yards passing, seven touchdown passes) and wideout Corry Johnson (15 catches, 280 yards, four touchdowns).


Apple Valley outscores opponents by an average of 32.5 to 9.4.


The Sun Devils' stellar defense is led by linemen Kris Barr (6-4, 240),

Anthony Morales (5-11, 250) and Jordan Bernal (6-3, 240)  , along with outside linebacker Jumanee Bey (6-3, 220) and free safety Johnson, who has six interceptions.


Another special player is Greg Gilmer, who plays outside linebacker on defense, tight end on offense and also does the team's placekicking and punting. He is only 5-11, 175 pounds.


Although Apple Valley is skilled, it takes someone to assemble that talent. Ask assistant coach Matt Rohrbaugh what the key to the Sun Devils' success is, and he points the finger toward Pulice, the 40-something, crew-cutted coach who still looks like he's in good enough shape that he could be playing special teams for San Diego State.


"Every coach and player respects him," Rohrbaugh said. "He puts in a lot of work beyond what he needs to. And he only has three rules: Do the right thing. Do your best. And do unto others."


Rohrbaugh said Apple Valley had a great running back at the school last season. But the player didn't meet Pulice's high expectations as a citizen and team player and was cut. Meantime, Ambers - who started the 2005 season third on the depth chart - has emerged as the Sun Devils marquee player of the past one-plus seasons.


Pulice and wife Lisa are regulars at High Desert Church. They have two daughters, Emily (9) and Cassidy (6). Family life has pulled Pulice away from the wrestling program where he once guided the Sun Devils to six league titles in seven years. But he's still firmly in control of the football program and thoroughly enjoying his best season to date.


"It's been unexplainable," Pulice said. "We're just blessed with some great athletes this year. These things go in cycles and this is a group that's been successful on every level.They just know how to win." 



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