PEORIA – A decade ago, badminton was practically nonexistent at Ironwood High School, barring the occasional day it might be played in physical education class. Brett Stafford, a physical education teacher at the school, had no clue where the sport would take him.
He loved badminton, knew how to play it recreationally and could reasonably teach the sport for a class. But being a coach of a team takes another level of knowledge, playing experience and commitment. And to be a competitive coach, you need talent.
Ten years later, the Ironwood girls’ badminton program has shown remarkable growth and prowess under Stafford’s guidance. The Eagles are the only program to reach the state semifinals every year since the AIA’s creation of Division II – Badminton, and they won the championship last year, the school’s first in the program.
After defeating Greenway and Arizona College Prep in the first two rounds of this year’s state championship, they are set to face Campo Verde (12-0) tonight in the next round of the tournament. The Eagles are 13-1 as they continue their journey to climb the mountain again.
To another state championship.
When Ironwood initially announced the introduction of girls’ badminton for the 2013 season, Stafford did not apply for the coaching position. He assumed the job would be given to his colleague at the time, Michelle “Missy” Carter, who had playing experience from her time in high school at Sunnyslope, one of the state’s top badminton programs.
Carter never applied. When Stafford learned from his athletic director that the job was still open, he had only one thing to say.
“Sign me up. I’m in. I want this job.”
Stafford put himself through a sort of personal training camp to understand and master badminton, watching “video after video after video” online, as well as taking lessons from Guy Chadwick, the club director at the Arizona Badminton Club, and Sunnyslope’s badminton coach, Sarah Schlesinger.
“I was not going to come into a job and not know,” Stafford said. “I wanted to give the girls who first came to me the best experience they could possibly have and … a coach that knew what he was doing and was going to work and train them so that they can be a competitive, winning team.”
The journey Stafford took taught him a lot about what it means to be a badminton coach, not just teaching skills or learning tactics, but as a leader for young athletes.
“I got people that are going to be playing me (that) are teaching me how to play the game,” Stafford said.
All this preparation, powered by Stafford’s inner drive to perfection, has produced tremendous success. Ironwood were state finalists in 2017 and 2018 before breaking through in 2020 to win the Division II state championship.
“That’s our goal every year,” Stafford said. “We step in, on a court, to win state. So my freshmen that came in, the goal is to win state.”
That sentiment is shared by his players at Ironwood, where the girls in the program have only one goal in mind.
“Uhh, to win state again,” said senior Juliana Traylor-Rowan.
“Having that second (championship) in a row, winning state again, is definitely a big accomplishment that I want to complete this year,” said senior Alexandria Hogan, who starred with Traylor-Rowan on Saturday when the duo won the Division II doubles individual championship.
One of the major advantages Stafford said he had initially at Ironwood is a relatively athletic talent pool.
“I was lucky… I had a lot of excited girls that wanted to play, and girls that played other sports,” Stafford said. “And that’s a big, huge factor in this game.
“They knew how to move on the court. They played basketball, they played soccer, they understood footwork.”
This has allowed practices – held from 2:45 p.m. to 5:00 every weekday after school – to be focused solely on technique and tactics.
But ultimately, as Stafford reiterated, the quality of coaching, the initial physical advantages, and the skill-concentrated practices can only take a program so far.
“It was the hard work of the girls, and their desire to be a good team,” Stafford said.
While Stafford takes pride in the program’s reputation, he recognizes the immense pressure his athletes face.
“It can weigh (a lot), yeah, it can get stressful,” Stafford said. “They feel it. They feel it from me, and they put the pressure on themselves.
“I can see it during games, where they feel it. I can see it in practices, where they’ll just be down. They’re needing something to get ’em going … It is tough.”
That pressure came to a boiling point earlier this month, resulting in Ironwood’s only loss of the year at Sunrise Mountain. Led by the aforementioned Michele “Missy” Carter, the Mustangs, like Ironwood, are 13-1 after victories in their first two rounds.
But as Stafford explained, the pressure teaches the importance of goal setting and work ethic to bettering themselves as individuals. While he was disappointed in the team’s lone loss, he did not allow it to break Ironwood’s drive for perfection and implored his team double-down on their focus.
These lessons are not lost on the athletes who have responded tremendously, showing they understand the true value of Stafford’s program.
“The harder you work, you can always be better at anything you do in life,” Traylor-Rowan said. “It just takes effort. It doesn’t matter how different something is or how hard. If you try, then it will work out for you.”