New head coach Tony Stillings brings change to Arcadia football

New Arcadia Head Football Coach Tony Stillings watches over a workout session in the weight room at Arcadia High School. (Independent Newsmedia/Josh Martinez)

The winds of change are blowing at Arcadia High School and right in the middle of it all is new Head Football Coach Tony Stillings.

Coach Stillings — who replaces five-year head coach Lenny Abt — comes to Arcadia via Ironwood High School in Glendale and looks to help the Titans back to prominence after a down year in 2016. AHS finished 2–8 last season.

In order to do that, Coach Stillings has revamped the program with a faster-paced offense and an overall brand new coaching staff, with a few staying on from the previous staff, all while trying to integrate the student-athletes into a new system.

While adjusting to a new system can be hard, Coach Stillings said he thinks the team has done so positively.

“There’s always that feeling-out period where they don’t know who I am or what I am about, but they were very open to it, very receptive to it and I think they’ve done a tremendous job with it,” he said in a June 14 interview.

Coach Stillings started at Ironwood in 2010 where his roles included strength and conditioning coach from 2010 until his departure, special teams coordinator from 2010-12 and defensive coordinator/varsity assistant coach from 2012 until his departure, according to his bio on arcadiatitansfootball.com.

Arcadia hired him in February and he got right to work with spring weight lifting and practices.

So far, Athletic Director Cher Fesenmaier has been impressed with Coach Stillings, leading her to express confidence in his system and philosophy.

“There will be great strides seen in his first year with room for growth throughout the season as well as upcoming years,” she said in a June 13 email response to questions.

“He is motivated and this has been contagious, as evident in the student-athletes who have been a part of his program since he was hired. Arcadia football is heading in a new direction and we are all excited.”

A transition period

The first time the players met Coach Stillings was at a meeting earlier this year.

Quarterback Luke Ashworth said Arcadia Principal Nathan Slater introduced the new coach to the team. Coach Stillings followed with a speech as well as lining out his goals for the upcoming year.

“It was a rah-rah meeting trying to get some people in and motivated, but it was also telling them what I’m about and what my expectations are,” Coach Stillings said.

“I’m a really high expectation guy. I expect a lot out of my kids not just on the field but in the classroom and the community. I relayed that to them as well. They’re not here to be football players, they’re here to be good people.”

Coach Stillings’ goal of motivation worked as Ashworth said the new coach impressed him in the way he spoke during that meeting.

“The way he talks and his mindset are just uplifting,” he said in a June 14 interview. “I think that’s going to help the team a lot this year, especially off of a bad year last year.”

The focus then shifted to weight training where Coach Stillings said the team got a rude awakening.

(photo by Josh Martinez)

“We put them through a pretty good workout and they were like ‘wow, this is pretty hard but we like it and we’re into it.’ They were pretty motivated by it,” he said.

However, this weight training was a bit unique as Coach Stillings still had to finish out the school year teaching at Ironwood.

School finished at 2:20 p.m. and Coach Stillings would hop in his car as soon as he could to make the 40-minute drive from Ironwood to Arcadia for after school weight lifting.

Once the workout session concluded, he would make the return trip to Peoria, hitting Phoenix rush hour traffic along the way.

“It wasn’t the most fun experience but it made the transition interesting, to say the least but I wouldn’t have traded it” Coach Stillings said. “You got to be over here and you’ve got to be present even as a new coach and even if it’s a pain to drive.”

Lucky for Coach Stillings, his family recently moved closer to the school, saving on gas and strengthening the connection with his players.

“It was weird at first because he was traveling all the way from Ironwood to get up here to do lifting but now that he’s closer, it’s a lot better,” Ashworth said. “We’ve built a better relationship so far.”

Strengthening that connection is important to Coach Stillings because he wants to be more than a football coach and he could not do that from far away.

A change of pace

Coach Stillings also worked this spring to instill his system during the team’s spring practices. This installation included a 4-2-5 defense and a power spread offense.

The type of defense the team will follow lends itself to countering spread offenses, which Coach Stillings expects to see this year. When facing a more traditional power offense, that defense will shift to a basic 4-3.

Offensively, Coach Stillings will use an up-tempo, no-huddle spread offense, which typically features three to four receivers on the field.

This offense differs significantly from last year’s Wing T formation — which focuses on the run game and more running backs — in many ways, including the faster pace.

“I remember the first practice, we went through a drill and (the team) was like ‘this is like our two-minute offense.’ I’m like ‘no, this is our offense,’” Coach Stillings said with a laugh.  “That was a little bit of an adjustment but the kids have taken to it very, very well.”

During the three weeks of spring practices, Coach Stillings said he had a good amount of sophomores come out to practices but he would have liked to see more upperclassmen.

Overall, he was pleased with the number who showed up and was impressed by their work ethic, coachability and character.

He also noticed his group picking up the offense well given Coach Stillings estimates he established about 85 percent of it.

The concern moving forward into the summer is getting more student-athletes out to practices. That being said, Coach Stillings is confident in those who have shown up and thinks they are quality athletes.

“We’ve got a great group of kids,” he said. “As I said, numbers aren’t terrific but it’s definitely quality over quantity right now. The kids that we have are working their tails off. I couldn’t be more proud of how they act and how they present themselves.”

Coach Stillings is still a couple of months away from the team’s opener against defending 5A state champions Williams Field High School but his efforts have already caught the eyes of his student-athletes and athletic director.

Inversely, he feels welcomed into the Arcadia family and the young men on the team have been a part of that welcoming party.

“I love the kids here,” he said. “They’re great kids and it’s just been a group I’ve felt like I’ve bonded with pretty quickly.”

News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at jmartinez@newszap.com or at 623-445-2738

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