Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Jaxon John hauls in a touchdown pass from Rhett Hughes in overtime to lift Pima over Morenci, 19-16.
Roughriders win rubber match of 2022 2A State Championship game
By Jon Johnson
PIMA – The regulation time limit wasn’t enough to decide the contest between juggernauts Pima and Morenci at Edd Hubbard Field on Thursday night, with Pima ultimately prevailing in overtime, 19-16, on a Rhett Hughes to Jaxon John connection.
“I hope you’re all entertained because we’re getting tired of these close games like this,” said Pima head coach Josh Wilkins. “(It will) keep you on your toes, but these boys just don’t want to lose. They just do what they had to do to win a game and they’re awesome. They got my heart tonight.”
The game was all it was hyped up to be and then some as the rematch of last year’s 2A State Championship game was also an unofficial grudge match – the one notch on Morenci’s revenge tour that it hasn’t been able to scratch.
“We came into the game with high expectations,” said Pima quarterback Rhett Hughes. “Jerry had a heck of a game last week, so obviously you’re looking for the run. We know we had to pass too, so we just had a good game plan for this game. I give it to coach for credit for that one.”
Hughes finished 11-25 on the night for 205 yards with 3 TDs and 3 INTs.
The guys he was throwing to included Jaxon John with 4 catches for 75 yards and the game-winning TD; Tuddy Smart with 3 catches for 66 yards and a TD, and Sam Ray with 2 catches for 25 yards and a TD. John finished with 208 all-purpose yards as he also returned kicks.
It was a defensive marvel from both teams in the first half, with Pima shutting down Morenci’s vaunted running game and Morenci forcing multiple turnovers. Pima would start the game with five straight giveaways but only trail 0-6 at the half.
“That’s a great team right there,” Wilkins said of Morenci. “They line up (and) there’s no hiding what they’re doing. They’re coming right after you and they do it good. Hats off to Morenci.”
The Wildcats had their troubles on offense in the first half as well and punted twice in the first and turned the ball over on downs twice in the second.
The lone Morenci score was set up by a heads-up defensive play by Donovan Vozza, who picked up a mishandled snap fumble by Pima quarterback Rhett Hughes and took it back to the 25-yard line before being tackled out of bounds by Ryker Shupe, saving a touchdown.
Morenci capitalized on the very next play, however, as quarterback Joey Seballos connected with Chris Lopez on a 25-yard TD reception. The 2-point attempt was not successful. Seballos finished 5-10 for 105 yards with 1 TD and 2 INTs for the night.
Pima moved the ball throughout the first half but two lost fumbles, two turnovers on downs, and one interception helped keep them off the board.
The Roughriders started to get their offense going in the third quarter after both teams initially traded punts. Pima continued to thrive in the air, and this time one went the distance.
Hughes dropped a dime to Tuddy Smart down the right sideline, and the running back kept his balance long enough to dive into the end zone for a 43-yard TD reception. A Jaxon John extra point gave Pima the edge, 7-6, with 8:24 left in the third quarter.
Then it was Pima’s defense setting it up as Sam Ray leaped near the line of scrimmage and intercepted Seballos. Ray took the INT back about 24 yards to the 7 to set up Pima with a first and goal to go. Ray then caught a 10-yard pass from Hughes on fourth down to put Pima up 13-7. After a penalty by Morenci, Pima elected to go for 2 points instead of the extra-point kick but was unsuccessful.
“In key times our defense really stepped up; guys flying around; getting to the ball; tackling as a team; that’s how we play,” Wilkins said.
Morenci continued to have offensive issues and then fumbled a punt attempt that ended with a turnover on downs. With Pima moving the ball again, the Wildcats needed someone to step up and that someone was its quarterback, Seballos, but he did so on the defensive side.
Seballos halted Pima’s march toward another score with an interception at the 2-yard line. Down 7 points and 98 yards away from the end zone, the Morenci Wildcats buckled down for the last quarter and began to play some bully ball.
Play after play the Wildcats pummeled the center of Pima’s defensive line, which had held firm through three quarters. However, now cracks began to form big enough for Casillas to slip through here and there and Morenci methodically made its way downfield.
Michael Casillas was the workhorse for Morenci, especially in the second half, and he finished with 138 yards on 34 carries.
The run eventually opened up a passing opportunity and Seballos hit Roybal for a big first down. Roybal then did it with his legs as well and took the handoff to a first and goal at the 1. A couple of plays later Casillas burst through to bring the score to 13-12. The ensuing extra point knotted it all up at 13 apiece, but Morenci left 6:35 left on the clock for Pima to work with.
The ensuing possession started well for the Riders with John returning the kickoff to Pima’s 45. Then Jeremiah Martinez burst through the line for 20 quick yards and suddenly Pima is into Morenci’s territory.
A long pass from Hughes to John along the sideline and Jaxon puts in some yards after the catch to bring the ball to the 15.
Facing a fourth down, Pima brought out John to attempt a field goal but Donovan Vozza blocked it and Morenci recovered the ball at its own 32.
Morenci then moved the ball downfield and was on the edge of the Red Zone as time began to run out. Seballos then was sacked by Preston Russell and the Wildcats hurried to the line to get in one more play. The ensuing pass was intercepted by Tuddy Smart, who raced down the sideline but Dean Chee made a touchdown-saving tackle for Morenci.
With 13 seconds left, Hughes let one fly to John down the left sideline but Fernandez was in excellent defensive position and made the interception on the jump ball to turn it back over to Morenci at its 2-yard line again and the teams were headed to overtime.
“It was very intense, really stressful,” Hughes said. “I give credit to the line. They did a heck of a job. Without them none of the pass plays would happen; none of the run plays. The credit goes to the line and our coach (for) good play calling.”
Similar to college overtime rules, high school teams are each allowed a possession starting at the 10-yard line. The coin flip determines who would start on offense, and Pima won the flip and chose to begin on defense.
Pima held Morenci to a field goal attempt, which the Wildcats made and temporarily went up, 16-13.
However, on Pima’s second down play, Hughes hung in the pocket and let it fly with Marcus Lucero bearing down on him and Jaxon John went up and came down with it for the walk-off TD in overtime and Pima prevailed, 19-16.
“We just wanted to go on defense first because we wanted to be able to react (to) what they did,” Wilkins said. “We have all the faith in the world in our defense, so we thought we could stop them and then we could rely more on what we do best.”
And on that final scoring play call?
“We thought we’d pound it a little bit and some encouragement from some of the players saying, ‘Hey coach, I got it on this route.’ And you gotta trust Jaxon when he says that. He delivered. Rhett put it on a rope right to him. It was a great play.”
Pima (1-0 conference, 3-0 overall) has defeated both 3A Conference opponents and will begin regional play. The Roughriders will be on the road the next two weeks, starting with visiting the St. Johns Redskins on Sept. 16 and then they will head up to the Miami Vandals on Sept. 22 before returning home on Sept. 29 to face the ALA – Anthem South Titans.
Morenci (2-0 conference, 3-1 overall) will have its home-field opener and the debut of its new artificial grass field on Friday, Sept. 15 against the Blue Ridge Yellowjackets. The Wildcats will then have a bye week before hosting the Safford Bulldogs on Sept. 29.