With 20 years of coaching experience under his belt, John Marquez has just one championship ring, but it’s a reminder of the team with which he made his biggest impact.
The one ring that accounts for his collection came in 2011 in his debut season as head coach of the Kenai Central high school football team, when he took over a program that had been guided for 19 years by Jim Beeson.
Five years later, Marquez is packing up and moving out for another opportunity in northern California this fall, and said no replacement has been named yet. Marquez will be taking on the head coaching role at Yreka High School, which is situated just south of the California-Oregon state border. Yreka High is similar to Kenai Central, with a steady student population of 550 to 600.
“It was a tough decision,” Marquez said about the job transfer. “I just got married last summer, and my wife and I were talking … it all boils down to our future in retirement.”
Marquez leaves Kenai with a 17-18 overall record as Kardinals head coach, including a 3-2 mark in playoff competition.
In his final two seasons at the helm, Marquez and the Kards finished runner-up in the Northern Lights Conference regular season standings to Soldotna, and put up a valiant fight against the Stars in the 2015 medium-schools state championship final, which ended with a 33-18 loss for Kenai.
Of his two championship game appearances with the Kards, Marquez said the most recent showing last October proved to be the sweetest, even as a loss. It was the final time Marquez stepped off the field sporting the red of the Kardinals.
“To make it to the state title game one more time and give Soldotna a run for their money that no other team could, that’s what I’m most proud of,” he said. “To finish up my career here in Kenai with this last group of kids, that was special.”
The 43-year-old Marquez, who grew up in southern California, said Yreka High offers a better retirement opportunity for him, but the move down south also presents another coaching challenge.
“The opportunity was also about the longevity for us to be somewhere 20 years from now,” he said. “That was important.”
A native of Barstow, California, Marquez took to coaching in 1996 after a brief playing career at Ottawa (Kansas) University. The assistant coaching position at Barstow High School eventually led to the head coaching job, and Marquez stayed there until 2003, when he ventured off to find coaching gigs at Victor Valley College and Myrtle Point High School in Oregon.
In his years in Kenai, Marquez tinkered with the long-standing tradition of playing the ground-and-pound game at Kenai Central, made successful by Beeson. In his 19 seasons at Kenai, Beeson won five state crowns at the small-schools level.
As a veteran coach from the Lower 48, Marquez entered the mix at Kenai Central in 2011 and implemented the spread offense typically found in college football powerhouse conferences like the Big 12.
With the group he inherited that season, which was led by Gatorade Player of the Year A.J. Hull, Marquez’s system flourished in the playoffs by toppling Soldotna in the semifinals and beating Homer 26-14 in the inaugural medium-schools championship. The trophy was the sixth state football crown for Kenai in school history.
However, after that senior class left and took with it a bevy of all-state offensive team members — including Hull — the remaining players were not the kind to fit into the offensive system that Marquez wanted to utilize.
“Jim Beeson brought me in and said no one’s knocking your offense, but we just don’t have the guys anymore for that,” Marquez recalled.
Following a 2-6 season that saw Kenai miss the playoffs, Marquez stepped away for a year while Jim Dawson, a longtime football assistant on the peninsula, took over.
Marquez returned in 2014 to guide the Kards to a 3-4 record. Kenai lost to North Pole in the state semifinals.
By the time last fall rolled around, the Kardinals had shifted to a ground-and-pound philosophy, which they used to great success with several backs, most significantly senior Andrew Welborn. Kenai powered its way to a 5-2 regular season record and avenged its loss to North Pole the previous year with a dominating win over the Patriots in the state semis.
Marquez said it was the transformation of the offensive philosophies surrounding the team that helped him bloom as a coach in his four years with the program.
“I figured that what I want to run doesn’t always match up with the kids and what caliber of talent they have,” he said. “I have to put the kids in the best position to be successful.”
In taking the reigns at Yreka, Marquez will be inheriting a team that went 5-5 last year and missed the playoffs at one of the lower divisions of football in California.
“It’s a very similar situation in what I had coming into Kenai, taking over for a coach that had been there 20-plus years and had retired,” Marquez said. “I feel this late in my career, being able to come into a situation like that, I have a feeling that’ll benefit me in the new team.”
Shortly after he was hired to take over the Kenai program, Marquez said one of the goals he had planned was to help get his players into college programs.
Call it a success. In his four years as coach, Marquez has sent off 11 players to the collegiate ranks.
“When you’re in the offseason sweeping driveways to raise money for the program, that just translated to the way we played on the field, as a family,” he said. “I’ve got some special bonds in my four years, and not only do I have special bond with my kids, but I have that bond with their parents, and that’s what makes my job so easy.”
When asked which accomplishment resonates most with him in his time with Kenai, Marquez passed over the 2011 state medium-schools title and pointed to the overall success he has seen in the program.
“They’ve given me so much joy and passion for teaching and coaching, and right now they hold a special place in my heart,” he said. “My hats off to those kids, them and the community.”