Bulldogs tame Lions

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: CJ Scrivner (23) makes his way around the right side for a big gain early in Safford’s 50-7 blowout victory over Pusch Ridge Christian Academy. Scrivner may be ineligible for Safford’s final regular-season game against Sabino after getting kicked out of the contest Friday night.

Take on Sabino in the region championship

By Jon Johnson


SAFFORD – The Tucson Pusch Ridge Christian Academy Lions (2-2 region, 3-3 conference, 4-5 overall) did something the Safford Bulldogs’ (4-0 region, 7-1 conference, 7-2 overall) previous five opponents couldn’t do; put Safford in a deficit. However, the Lions wouldn’t even smell the end zone the rest of the game and ended up just like the last five as Safford won big again 50-7.

It was Senior Night being the last regular home game of the season, and the players and everyone involved in the event put on a show for the parents in attendance.

After their initial score, the Lions’ offense produced three fumbles, an interception, and four punts, while Safford had seven touchdowns on the night and two punts, including one in garbage time.  

The Bulldogs sit atop the 3A South and will travel to Tucson to face the Sabino Sabercats (4-0 region, 5-1 conference, 7-2 overall) for the regional championship Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 7 p.m. While Safford is first in the region, the Bulldogs are currently ranked number 12 to Sabino’s number 8 in the 3A division. 

“Since week one when we played Snowflake we haven’t played a team like Sabino,” said Safford head coach Eric Hjalmarson. “So, we’ve got our work cut out for us next week.”

As if the battle won’t be tough enough next week, the Bulldogs may have to do it without their number one offensive player, CJ Scrivner, who was ejected from the game in the second quarter after officials deemed he had “launched at the quarterback” and/or performed helmet-to-helmet contact. While there was a helmet-to-helmet call on the previous play as well, Scrivner was not involved in that and was on the opposite side of the field at the time. 

As for the play in question, video footage shows Scrivner apparently perform a good, legal hit with his forearm on Pusch Ridge quarterback Hayden Hallett just after Hallett threw a pass downfield. The apparent legal hit did jostle Hallett’s head to snap back, and one could see how a referee seeing that in real-time believed it to be a penalty. 

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

However, Safford Athletic Director Toni Corona, who is on the AIA Executive Committee, said there was a difference in a player being removed from a game and being ejected. She said she would take her evidence to the AIA to see if Safford could have Scrivner merely have been removed from the game, otherwise, according to AIA rules, he would be ineligible to compete against Sabino because he would have to sit out a game for the infraction. 

Indeed, there were issues with multiple calls from the officials all night, starting with the first play of the game when Safford’s stud kicker Justin Torrio hit a perfect pooch onside kick that was recovered by Dax Gonzalez at the Pusch Ridge 47 yard line. However, after getting together and discussing it, the referee threw his flag and said Gonzalez had committed illegal touching, even though the ball had traveled past the 10 yards required, and gave the ball back to the Lions. 

Pusch Ridge made the most of the gift and moved the ball down the field, completing a big 20-yard pass on 3rd-and-8 from about midfield and capping the drive with a 3-yard TD run by Javier Grajeda to put Pusch Ridge up early, 7-0.

 Safford came right back, however, and on the Bulldogs’ third play from scrimmage, the aforementioned Scrivner followed two pulling blockers around the right side and made the edge. Scrivner then raced 60 yards down the right sideline to pay dirt. After an encroachment penalty gave Safford the ball at the 1-1/2-yard line, the Bulldogs went for two and Scrivner walked it in, putting Safford back up, 8-7. 

Then it was the defense’s time to shine as Hallett dropped back to pass but the ball slipped out of his hands. Brennon Jurardo fell on it in the end zone and suddenly Safford was up 15-7. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Angel Atencio gathers a fumble in mid-air after the ball was dislodged from Pusch Ridge tight end Will Way.

Pusch Ridge tried to run on the Bulldogs, but the defensive line clogged up the middle and linebackers like Samuel Tobias and defensive backs like Jared Garcia shut down the outside lanes. Every game I’ve had the pleasure to cover Safford, Garcia has had at least one torpedo tackle and this one was no exception. As Lions’ running back Evan Lovett tried to make his way around the right side, Garcia struck and shook Lovett up a bit. 

Good defense led to a good offensive position, as the Lions’ punt only netted 12 yards and Safford got the ball back at mid-field. The Bulldogs capitalized a few plays later when Mason Duros dropped back on 2nd-and-10 from the 15 and found Tobias alone in the back of the end zone. Torrio’s extra-point attempt was good (as they were all night) and the Bulldogs were up 22-7 with just 27 seconds left in the first quarter. 

After Scrivner got tossed, the defense got even stringier and three Bulldogs colluded to pull off what was possibly the play of the game. 

Hallett dropped back to pass and let one fly down the middle to freshman tight end Will Way, who caught the ball and then turned upfield. Just then, Torrio hit Way low and Noah Bevens hit him in his midsection, causing the ball to fly out of his grasp. Angel Atencio snagged the fumble out of mid-air and took it back about 25 yards. The Bulldogs were moved back for a block in the back on the return, but they retained possession. 

But Atencio wasn’t done yet, and on the Lions’ next possession he stepped in front of Way and cleanly intercepted Hallett. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Robert White picks up big yardage in the third quarter.

Two plays later, the Bulldogs capitalized on the turnover when Tobias went untouched 30 yards for the TD, putting Safford up, 29-7 with about 3 minutes left until halftime. 

On the ensuing kickoff, however, Lovett lost the handle on the ball and it was picked up and returned by Dax Gonzalez for a touchdown as Safford took a commanding 36-7 lead into halftime. 

In the second half, the Bulldogs ran the ball with Robert White and Eduardo Ogaz stepping in for the missing Scrivner. White scored on a 3-yard dive in the third quarter, and Duros scored on a 1-yard QB keeper at the start of the fourth to put Safford up 50-7 and start the mercy rule running clock. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Brennon Jurado (75) celebrates his touchdown after recovering a fumble in the end zone.

“All week we prepared to have a close game, but our mindset was to just try to run the ball down their throats and score as many touchdowns as possible and get that running clock going,” Duros said. “It’s a good win.”

Duros said the Bulldogs feel good about their chances heading into their biggest game of the year so far. 

“We’re on a roll right now and we’re out for revenge for what happened last year,” Duros said. “I just hope they’re ready because we’re coming.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Cheerleaders await the arrival of the football team to the field.

Hjalmarson said the reality is they could have five more games or could only have two more games (next week’s final regular-season game and one playoff game) and that they could make a deep playoff run if they continue to improve in all aspects of the game. 

“I mean, we lost our best player offensively tonight – probably our best player – and didn’t miss a beat,” Hjalmarson said. “So, that’s good for me. It’s good for our team to know that ‘Hey, we can play,’ even if we lose somebody.

I’m just so proud of our kids. We’ve got great kids here. They’ve overcome a lot, a lot. More than the average person knows and needs to know but these kids are resilient. They’re good kids, really good kids.”

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: After the game, both teams joined at mid-field for a joint prayer.

In other local prep action: 

The Thatcher Eagles (2-2 region, 3-3 conference, 5-4 overall) fell to the Round Valley Elks (3-0 region, 5-1 conference, 6-2 overall), 6-27. With the victory, the Elks will be the 2A Black Region champions no matter what happens in their final game.

The Eagles finish out the regular season on the road against Tucson Santa Rita (0-4 region, 3-6 conference, 3-6 overall) and will then have to wait and see where they are ranked for the playoffs to see their opening-round opponent. 

The Morenci Wildcats (1-2 region, 4-4 conference, 4-5 overall) thwarted the Pima Roughriders (0-3 region, 3-5 conference, 3-5 overall), 44-14. 

Morenci will travel to take on the St. Johns Redskins (2-1 region, 6-1 conference, 7-2 overall) on Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 7 p.m. Pima will travel to Eager to play region champ Round Valley on Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 7 p.m. 

The Fort Thomas Apaches 3-3 region, 6-4 conference, 6-4 overall) avenged a regular-season loss to 1A South Region champions the Duncan Wildkats (5-1 region, 7-2 conference, 7-2 overall) and won the rubber match in the opening round of the 1A State Playoffs, 26-6. 

Fort Thomas will travel to take on the Superior Panthers (4-0 region, 7-1 conference, 7-1 overall) at Superior High School in the second round on Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 6 p.m.

With the loss, Duncan’s promising season came to an end.   

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