Denton ISD flourishes after uncertain stretch

Wearing his white Stetson, Denton ISD athletic director Ken Purcell nervously paced the press box at SMU's Ford Stadium last weekend as he watched Wylie chip away at Denton Ryan's once seemingly insurmountable lead.

Minutes prior, he sat stoic and still, the way he usually looks while watching yet another win by Ryan or Denton Guyer.

After Wylie's fourth-and-goal attempt failed in the waning minutes to secure Ryan's 25-20 state semifinal win, Purcell released a deep sigh and quietly recoiled into his seat with his hands folded.

"I'm just getting too old for this stuff," Purcell said.

Behind Purcell's sigh was five years' worth of uncertainty and tension within the community over the opening of Guyer and the affect it had on Ryan and Denton High, the city's flagship school.

All the turmoil will be forgotten on Saturday at Cowboys Stadium, when Guyer faces Cibolo Steele for the Class 5A Division II championship after Ryan takes on Austin Lake Travis in the 4A Division I title game.

Denton ISD is the first district to have two schools play in Texas football state championship games in the same year since 1962, when Fort Worth ISD sent Dunbar and Kirkpatrick to Prairie View Interscholastic League title games in the days of segregation.

When Guyer opened in 2005 to accommodate a population boom in the city, Denton ISD chose to fill the new school's classrooms with a one-year transfer policy that allowed students to attend Guyer for any reason, as opposed to rezoning and enforcing the new boundaries.

Guyer’s enrollment number quickly ballooned, and it had stellar participation in all its athletic programs. After going 1-19 in its first two years of varsity football play, Guyer exploded in 2008 to reach the 4A state semifinals, registering a stunning upset of Ryan in the process.

“Seeing the level of talent that was in Denton and what [Ryan coach] Joey [Florence] had done with that program and it being a consistent state power, that’s what attracted me to the Guyer job,” Guyer coach John Walsh said. “It was a gamble, but it was researched hard.”

While the one-year transfer rule succeeded in allowing Guyer to open with a full curriculum and easing the overcrowding issues at Denton and Ryan, it had unforeseen consequences on the athletics programs.

Student-athletes flocked from Denton and Ryan and their aging facilities to brand-new Guyer, which boasts state-of-the-art athletic facilities on par with any in the state.

With most of its athletes now at Guyer, Denton High went into a tailspin. At times it had a varsity football roster with no more than 30 players. From 2005-09, Denton won six games total.

Even Ryan, coming off a streak of four consecutive state title game appearances, lost athletes to Guyer. Its facilities weren’t much better than Denton High's, and the overflowing trophy case wasn’t enough to keep athletes at the school.

After two years in Class 5A, Ryan dropped to 4A, which was Denton ISD’s intention. It wanted its high schools to have an enrollment number just below 2,000, which is usually around the 5A cutoff.

But Ryan's loss of athletes was unexpected. Beginning in 2005 -- its second year in 5A -- Ryan lost in the first round of the playoffs three straight years, astonishing for a program that had gained national recognition by playing in the first nationally televised high school football game against Southlake Carroll in 2004.

“I’ve said privately and I’ve said publicly, I think we made a couple of bad decisions in the school district when we gave Guyer open enrollment for one year,” Purcell said. “Denton High immediately lost 400 kids that chose to go to Denton Guyer. It really impacted their programs.”

Recognizing the effect Guyer’s facilities had on the transfer policy, Denton ISD and Purcell put together a $282 million bond package that, among many other things, upgraded the facilities at Denton and Ryan. The bond passed in November 2007.

Denton and Ryan moved into their new fieldhouses before the 2009 football season. Ryan’s is a pristine monument with dark windows shading a massive weight room. Wooden steps baring the Ryan Raider double-R logo lead athletes up to each weight station.

Denton’s might be the most impressive of the three. It’s a two-story behemoth that overlooks Bronco Stadium, the former home of Denton’s football team before C.H. Collins Athletic Complex opened in 2004.

“In hindsight, I wish we’d built the new facilities at Denton High at the same time we built Guyer High School,” Purcell said. “But I’m not critical of our administration or myself. It’s hindsight. If we’d known what we know now, we’d have done some things differently.”

The city and the district weathered adversity and uncertainty. With new zones and a little time, the numbers crept back up at Denton and Ryan, and equal footing with facilities helped keep athletes at each school.

“We put a few measures in to keep kids from jumping from one school to another that I think have been effective -- rules that are even more stringent than the UIL rules,” Purcell said. “I think it’s helped some. It’s slowly growing back.”

Now each of the three football teams is enjoying success not seen since before Guyer opened. In its first year in 5A, Guyer has reached the Division II state title game after appearing in the 4A state semifinals each of the past two years.

Ryan regained its form in 2008 by advancing three rounds into the playoffs. This season, the Raiders, are in a state title game for the first time since 2003.

Even Denton made the playoffs for the first time since 2002, a feat overshadowed by Mesquite Poteet’s playoff run but no less remarkable given the fundamental issues the school has faced for years.

“It’s very hectic here right now,” Purcell said. “I’ve been through this as coach and, of course, as an AD with Ryan’s run. But man, you double it with both of them in. It’s double the media, double the tickets. It’s been a heck of a run the last six weeks.”