Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Tristan Sanchez holds up the ball in triumph after securing a fumble recovery to turn the ball over to the Wildcats. Sanchez was huge on defense all night as Morenci dispatched Parker 39-14 to move onto the state championship game.
By Jon Johnson
AHWATUKEE – The No. 4-ranked Morenci Wildcats (4-1 region, 11-1 conference, 11-2 overall) will play the No. 2-ranked Arizona Lutheran Academy Coyotes (4-0 region, 11-1 conference, 12-1 overall) for the 2A State Football Championship on Saturday, Nov. 27, starting at 2 p.m. at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert at 3870 S. Quartz St.
In the semifinal game Saturday at Desert Vista High School, Morenci dominated the formerly unbeaten No. 1-seed Parker (4-0 region, 10-1 conference, 11-1 overall) and left the field with a 39-14 victory.
Morenci jumped all over Parker, opening up a 19-0 lead. It all began with the Wildcats’ defense, which held Parker to an opening 3-and-out. However, punter Brian Bojorquez was unable to handle a low snap and Morenci opened its offense on the Broncs’ 15-yard-line. While the offense usually gathers most of the headlines, enough cannot be said about how badly Morenci’s defense thwarted Parker’s offense for all but one play and one late possession in the fourth quarter.
After the turnover, the Wildcats then went to their main offensive threat – Michael Casillas – for three straight runs, the last being a 5-yard scamper for a TD as Casillas snuck in behind his blockers to put Morenci up 6-0.
Casillas went out with a leg injury early in the game but returned sporadically enough to still rush for 87 yards on 14 carries and two TDs. However, he lacked his usual explosiveness at times and was later carried off the field. Casillas reportedly took an ice bath on Monday to help with his recovery progress and, hopefully, be ready to go in the championship game.
Right after Casillas first left the game, the Wildcats faced a 3rd and 1 from their own 49. When one player goes down another must step up and that player at that time was Derek Saenz who rounded the corner on a handoff and blazed 51 yards down the right sideline to pay dirt to put Morenci up 12-0.
Morenci’s defense held on Parker’s next possession, stopping the Broncs on a 4th and 3. However, the Wildcats also ended up turning the ball over on downs.
In the second quarter, the defense struck big as Tristen Sanchez forced a sack/fumble on Broncs quarterback Zachary Bennett. Donovan Vozza picked up the loose ball for the Wildcats and returned it 33 yards to put Morenci up 19-0 in front of shocked Parker fans.
Parker would come back later in the quarter on a trick play as Bennett handed the ball off to Thaddeus Nopah, who then pitched it to Cameron Poole on the reverse. Poole pulled up, however, and threw a deep pass to a wide-open Leo Scott Jr., who gathered in the toss and took it the rest of the way for a 51-yard score. Nopah then took it in for the 2-point conversion and the Broncs were still down but were on the board as the teams broke for halftime, 19-8.
At a pivotal moment in the third quarter, Casillas put on his big-boy pants and did his best Willis Reed impersonation. Facing a 4th and 3, Casillas took the pitch from Daylen Johnson and burst around the right sideline for the first and more as he raced through Broncs for 21 yards. A personal foul penalty called on the play added to the Wildcats’ gain, and Morenci found itself with a 1st and 10 from the 11-yard line.
Johnson tried to punch it in himself on 3rd and goal from the 9, and a rugby-like scrum developed with Parker winning out at the 3-yard-line.
Casillas then got his second TD of the night with a 3-yard run up the gut as he beat Tyson Ross at the point of impact at the goal line and Morenci was up 26-8.
Things kept going Morenci’s way as a handoff attempt between Poole and Nopah ended with the ball loose on the ground and Sanchez snagging it for the Wildcats. The fourth turnover on the night for the Broncs gave the Wildcats the ball at Parker’s 21-yard line.
The Wildcats then capitalized on the turnover on 4th and goal from the 5 when Johnson rolled out to his left and hit Tony Roybal in the end zone for the TD to make it 32-8 at the end of the third quarter.
After the Broncs turned it over on downs when the Wildcats sacked Bennett on 4th and 10, Morenci returned to the air to attempt to balance its offensive attack.
Johnson ended up going 4-7 for 50 yards and two TDs. He hooked up with Roybal again in the fourth quarter for a 14-yard TD strike to put Morenci up 39-8 and end all hope of a comeback.
Parker still played out the rest of the game, however, and managed to move the ball downfield on its second to last possession and score on a 5-yard run by Anthony Taylor. However, it was too little, too late, and Morenci left the field victorious and ended Parker’s hopes at a perfect season with a 39-14 victory.
Morenci will face No. 2-ranked Arizona Lutheran Academy for the championship on Saturday. Arizona Lutheran defeated No. 3 Benson 20-7 in the other semifinal game earlier in the day at the same venue.