PHOENIX – A historic rivalry between two Catholic schools will be renewed Friday night as the Brophy Broncos and St. Mary’s Knights face off in Week 1 of the 2021 high school football season.
The schools have faced each other 55 times since 1959, but not since 2012.
“It was two Catholic schools together and one wants the prominence of being good in every sport,” said Frank O’Dwyer, who was part of the ’59 Brophy team that beat the Knights 20-18 in the rivalry’s first game.
The schools share an interesting, intertwining history.
Brophy College Preparatory, a Jesuit boarding school founded in 1928, shut down in 1935 because of the Great Depression, prompting its male students to enroll in the Valley’s other prominent Catholic high school, St. Mary’s, which had converted to all-girls school when Brophy opened.
During the transition, the boys from Brophy brought their green athletic gear, forcing the Knights to switch their school colors from red to green. Brophy reopened in 1952, but it needed to get creative because its soon-to-be rivals had taken its school colors.
Brophy bought used athletic equipment from Santa Clara University, whose colors are red and white, and adopted the Santa Clara mascot – the Broncos. Although Brophy players and fans eventually embraced the change, losing their beloved green was a sore spot that fueled the new rivalry.
The matchup early on seemed to favor the Knights, especially under the reign of coach Pat Farrell, who played for St. Mary’s from 1967-69, winning two championships. Farrell then coached the Knights from 1978-2000, and again in 2003-07, leading the rivalry in wins as a coach with 18 victories.
Farrell understood what it means to succeed as both a coach and player and knew there was a certain belief among the players that elevated them.
“You threw records out and anything can happen on a given night, that was our belief,” he said. “It’s that underdog attitude I learned as a player with a sign that was always hanged in our locker room, ‘We may not be the biggest but we have a firm conviction we could be the best.’
“And it was that challenge in front of you that you were going to do whatever it took to be the best. That attitude sprung up in the ’60s, that I was fortunate to be part of, and it established the best tradition of all of finding a way to win a game.”
It’s an attitude that led to Farrell’s great success as St. Mary’s coach. Under Farrell, the Knights won four state titles and went on a historic run in the rivalry, beating Brophy 16 times in a row from 1980 through ’95. The rivalry, Farrell said, was built off the competitiveness between players and the connections they have with each other, but more importantly the intensity and mentality of “it was not so much winning, you just hate to lose it.”
But the rivalry wouldn’t be what it is today if not for the close community that for decades has connected two schools that sit barely 2 miles away from each other in central Phoenix.
“With a great rivalry, that only occurs if the schools, teams, crowds and parents get into a competitive spirit, and that they did,” Farrell said. “There were great numbers out there tailgating from 4 p.m. on with the grills cooking and as you took the field the smoke covered it all. Everyone took their seats at 6 p.m. and as soon as you walked out of the locker room you heard noise and it was electric.
“It did not occur at any other game in your life, including state championships. It became something special not only because of the teams but the communities involved.”
The rivalry extended well beyond football, and for O’Dwyer, that first victory would be impactful for years to come.
“We had a great spirit at Brophy and you can feel it in the stands,” O’Dwyer said. “They were excited about the game (against St. Mary’s) and what the team could do because we had a good team. We needed to be tested and that test was St. Mary’s.”
The two schools have gone through many changes over the years, from structural to student class size. Since 2000, the Knights have won only two of their matchups against the Broncos. In 2010, they dropped from the 6A division in the AIA to 4A as the Broncos were trying to become a 6A powerhouse.
They stopped facing each other again in 2012 due to the widening competitive gap. But Brophy coach Jason Jewell, now in his third year, called St. Mary’s coach Jose Lucero when he was hired last year to congratulate him on his job. That phone conversation turned into something bigger.
“I had called him to congratulate him on getting the St. Mary’s job because one, he is my friend, and two, he is a St. Mary’s grad,” Jewell said. “Then we started talking about how it would be cool to play and we arranged a scrimmage last year. It did not happen because of COVID stuff but after their season was over he said, ‘Let’s make it a real game’ and (it) took me a few seconds to say yes.”
With the game a reality again, the support on both sides has been significant with alumni rallying around their teams. The environment, the camaraderie, the friendships and families that stretch back decades – all combine to make this a highly anticipated kickoff to the season.
“For the two schools, and I know speaking definitely for St. Mary’s, we felt that this game needed to be on the schedule,” Lucero said. “The alumni support has been great and people are really excited for the game. We made special shirts for the game and they sold out instantly so they are making more.
“We felt that it is a game that should always be played. It’s an important rivalry for a lot of people in our community. Their favorite memory comes from playing Brophy and that atmosphere,” he said.
The Knights hope for a repeat of last year, when they returned to the state playoffs and won their first playoff game in 21 years. It will not be easy for the Knights but they will focus on one element that may pay off big every Friday.
“We know we are not going to be the biggest or the strongest or the fastest on any given Friday night,” Lucero said. “What we really hang our hat on in St. Mary’s is having kids that play disciplined football. It is one of those things that either side of the ball we hone in on to play football the right way.
“It is not about one guy here, it is about the collective at the end of the day,” he said.
As for the Broncos, they are looking to bounce back from an 0-7 season that ended prematurely in order to keep their players safe from COVID-19. The team is excited about the upcoming season with senior quarterback Elijah Warner back from the injury he sustained last season and the group facing less pandemic-related restrictions.
“Our buy-in has been fantastic since we ended last season, not only from the players but our administration giving us more access to the weight room and things like that we didn’t have during COVID,” Jewell said. “Our numbers as far as depth and number of kids in our program are better than they have ever been and our strength is better than it has been for a long time.
“We have 43 seniors, 40 juniors, 50 sophomores and 130 freshmen out for football so we are approaching 300 kids in the program. When I first took over in 2019, they had 189 so the growth has been there since I got hired and this senior class is something special,” he said.
The two storied programs aim to make the rivalry the spectacle it once was and couldn’t be in the spring when the two schools played each other in basketball. COVID-19 restrictions put a limit on crowd size, and a return to normalcy seemed far away.
It will take time for the rivalry to reach its glory days, but come kickoff tonight at Central High school – Brophy’s new home field for now – there will be a wealth of history and little love lost between the two sides.