Jay Denton, a fixture in Eloy’s athletic community since the late 1960s, leading Santa Cruz to state wrestling and soccer championships, died suddenly on Sunday.
He was 78 years old.
Randi, Denton’s daughter, said her father recently moved from Yuma to Phoenix to watch his grandchildren compete in sports.
On Sunday, she said she was coaching her daughter’s competitive softball team in a tournament Jay had entered.
“He was in softball all day and it happened instantly on the way home,” Randi said. “We don’t know exactly what it was, if it was a heart attack.”
Denton took a 10-year hiatus from coaching and teaching between 1978 and 1988, before returning to coaching in Santa Cruz. He also served as sporting director before leaving in 2005.
He taught and coached football and wrestling at Yuma Gila Ridge from 2005 to 2013.
Denton is in the Arizona High School Athletics Hall of Fame.
He started the Santa Cruz wrestling program in 1969. He led the wrestling team to state championships in 1977, 1991, and 1995 and the football team to state titles in 1978 and 1990.
He was also inducted into the National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame.
Denton led Gila Ridge to its first playoff spot, leading the program from 2009 to 2011. He was 14-9 during his time there.
In Santa Cruz, Denton built on the football success of Lonnie Foster. After Denton’s team in 1978 won the state, his assistant, Eddie Jones, guided the Dust Devils to the state championship, going 13-0.
In 1980, Jim Ewan took over and led Santa Cruz to a third straight state title.
“I rode their ponytails, and if not for Steve Combs, the wheels would have fallen off,” said Ewan, now an assistant soccer coach at Yuma Catholic. “Jay’s teams were just tough and relentless. They were well trained, healthy and fast.”
At the time, Santa Cruz played in the Central 2A region consisting of Phoenix Gerard Catholic, Gilbert, Coolidge, Apache Junction, and San Manuel. Only one team from that region, Ewan said, would make the playoffs and the state champion usually came out of that region.
Randi, a 2001 Santa Cruz graduate, said her dad was good at bringing together the best in people.
“He was successful in getting the athletes to respect him and each other,” Randi said. “When that happens and they come together as a team, that’s the result. Winning teams. A whole community of people respected him.”
Support local journalism: Subscribe to azcentral.com today