Pima defeats Morenci 50-19 for the 2A State Football Championship
By Jon Johnson
“We did it. Those guys did it. They’re so awesome.”Pima head football coach Josh Wilkins
PIMA – The Pima Roughriders are your 2A State Football Champions after dominating the Morenci Wildcats 50-19 in the championship game played Saturday night at Safford High School.
It was a packed house and then some as the teams and Arizona Interscholastic Association (AIA) decided to hold the 2A State Football Championship Game locally in Safford at a neutral site. The move saved the schools, parents, and fans some money and perhaps allowed for even greater fan attendance.
“This is just a great feeling,” said first-year Pima head coach Josh Wilkins. “I’m so proud of these boys. I’m so proud of the coaches. I’m so proud of this community and the love and the support they’ve shown us. These guys played with so much heart tonight. They played like champions from the get-go They deserve it. They did awesome.”
The event was the first local championship football game since Pima was the home team versus Clifton on Nov. 13, 2004, for the 1A State Football Championship Game played at Fort Thomas High School. Pima won that duel with the Greenlee County team as well, 60-22.
It was standing-room only throughout the stadium on Saturday, and let’s just say I’m happy the fire marshal didn’t appear to be on hand because it seemed the entire town of Pima was packed into the stands. Both teams were extremely well represented as could be heard by the cheers and had fans lined up around the field bundled up in blankets to stay warm on the breezy, crisp November night.
Pima never trailed and converted two fourth downs for touchdowns early to help get a 20-7 lead at the half. The Roughriders then scored four straight touchdowns and a field goal in the second half to put the game away. Every time Morenci scored in the second half, Pima answered with its own touchdown within seconds – whether it be on the kickoff return or the first play from scrimmage afterward.
The Roughriders produced 379 rushing yards and 8 touchdowns while holding the Wildcats to 211 yards rushing and 3 touchdowns. Morenci also punted the ball four times and had three turnovers, while Pima didn’t punt at all and had two turnovers.
Seth Russell and Wyatt Wiltbank led the way offensively for Pima. Russell threw for two TDs and ran for another (2-7 for 23 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT), while Wiltbank had 264 yards rushing on 23 carries to go with three TDs of his own. Wiltbank averaged an astounding 11.5 yards per carry in the championship game, and that was out of 23 attempts, while Russell played through what later was learned to be a hand fracture for more than half the game, according to his mother.
“It’s freakin’ awesome,” Russell said. “I can’t explain it. No words can explain the amount of joy I’m feeling right now. You know everybody is feeling the exact same way – hearts full. Hearts full for each and every one of these players on the team.”
Jaxon John had 126 return yards (72 kickoff, 54 punt return), and Tuddy Smart led the defensive charge with 9 tackles followed by Russell with 7 tackles, Chris Serna with 6, and Tucker Wilkins with 5.
Both teams plowed through the playoffs, easily defeating every opponent, even those in the semifinals. Pima (13-1) defeated No. 16 Chinle (3-7, minus 8.1021) 55-8 in the first round on Nov. 4, No. 8 Camp Verde (10-2, 8.1504) 61-7 in the quarterfinals on No. 11, and No. 4 Willcox (10-2, 10.7738) 35-7 in the semifinals on Nov. 19.
Morenci (12-2) defeated No. 15 Tucson Tanque Verde (5-6, minus 0.4126) 32-0 in the first round, No. 7 Tonopah Valley (10-2, 9.3201) 52-6 in the quarterfinals, and No. 3 Scottsdale Christian (10-2, 12.4883) 71-40 in the semifinals.
Pima 50 Morenci 19
With the game tied at 7-7, Pima converted a 4th down and 8 into a 21-yard TD pass from Seth Russell to Grant Ashby. Then in the second quarter, Pima did it again with a 4-yard TD pass on a 4th and 3 from Russell to Ashby. Those two conversions gave Pima a 20-7 lead, which would be unsurmountable.
The Roughriders manhandled the Morenci Wildcats and thoroughly stifled its vaunted running game to where it was not a factor in the game. If you have watched Morenci at all this season, you would realize how Herculean a task that is.
By himself, two-time 2A Salt Region Offensive Player of the Year Michael Casillas finished third in the state in rushing yards this year with 1,936, according to the AIA, and was fifth in scoring at 204 points. Morenci also has speedy backs in Derek Saenz and Patrick Chavez.
Casillas finished the night with 113 yards on 20 carries with two touchdowns and a long of 44 yards. Saenz finished with 75 yards on 2 carries and a touchdown.
Morenci quarterback Daylen Johnson went 6-12 for the night for 50 yards and also tied with three others for most tackles with 7 (4 solo, 3 assisted). Tristen Sanchez had the most solo tackles with 7.
Conversely, Wyatt Wiltbank was the lead horse in Pima’s stable of running backs, who punished Morenci for chunks of yards at a time in addition to the big scoring plays. Wiltbank was joined by Hayden Blair, Jeremiah Martinez, and Tuddy Smart, who also had a 90-yard backbreaker kickoff return TD.
Russell finished with 46 yards rushing on 5 carries (9.2 yards per carry average) and a touchdown; Hayden Blair had 33 yards on 7 carries and Jeremiah Martinez had 28 yards on 6 carries.
But it was Wiltbank who got it started for Pima, racing around the corner and then sprinting down the sidelines for big yardage. Wiltbank broke the ice with a 21-yard TD on the Roughriders’ first possession on a pitch from Russell and Pima was up 7-0 at 9:46 in the first quarter.
Casillas came out strong and quick for the Wildcats, gaining big yardage until being run down by his number sake on Pima, speedster Hayden Blair – who was an absolute terror all night in the backfield for the Wildcats.
Casillas scored on a 43-yard run off an option pitch from quarterback Daylen Johnson and the Wildcats evened the game at 7-7 at 7:18 in the first quarter, much to the delight of the over-filled visitors’ stands.
After another Wiltbank run brought the Roughriders to the Red Zone, Russell hit Grant Ashby for a 19-yard TD on 4th and 8 when Ashby outjumped Derek Saenz for the ball, and Pima was up 14-7 at 5:01 in the first quarter.
Morenci failed to move the ball and had to punt. Pima started with good field position and was quickly in scoring range again after a few runs by Wiltbank.
However, just as it appeared that Russell was going to score on a hard-ran ball to the goal line, 2A Salt Region Defensive Player of the Year Tristen Sanchez swiped the ball away, which saved a touchdown and turned the ball and momentum back to Morenci at the end of the first quarter.
Morenci couldn’t move the ball and had to punt and Pima soon found itself knocking on the door again early in the second quarter. Facing a 4th and 3 from the 4, Russell faked the QB sneak and instead threw a jump pass to Grant Ashby for the TD, making it 20-7 at 7:37 in the second quarter.
After another punt, Morenci got a break on a lazily thrown wobbler by Russell that the receiver wasn’t looking for. Russell had injured his hand previously and it affected the pass. The injury was later identified as a fracture, according to his mother. The defense was there, however, and after being tipped by Patrick Chavez, the ball came down in the hands of Derek Saenz for the INT. Saenz raced toward the end zone but Russell salvaged the situation by stopping him short. But Morenci had a first and goal while down 20-7.
But on second and goal, Johnson’s pitch went awry and Casillas couldn’t corral it. Sam Ray came up with the turnover to keep the score the same into halftime.
Morenci previously won the coin toss and received the second-half kickoff but the ball was mishandled and Pima stole a possession by recovering the loose ball. Pima would convert on the possession with a 14-yard run by Russell to make it 27-7 at 10:02 in the third quarter.
Pima had held Morenci’s speedsters mostly in check up until this point, but Derek Saenz finally broke one on a 3rd and 15 and took it 62 yards for the score to bring it to 27-13 at 7:14 in the third quarter.
However, on the ensuing kickoff, Tuddy Smart hit his seam and came out unscathed running for his life down the sideline. Austyn Nelson and Marcus Lucero made a last-ditch attempt to corral him by diving at his feet but Smart kept his balance and scored a 90-yard TD kickoff return to just demoralize the Wildcats and make it 34-13 at 7 minutes in the third quarter. In fact, after each touchdown by Morenci in the second half, Pima scored merely seconds later.
After another Morenci punt, Pima scored on its next possession with a 10-yard dive up the middle by Wiltbank for his second TD on the night. The score made it 40-13 at 2:29 in the third quarter.
Morenci continued to battle and Johnson connected with Patrick Chavez to set up 1st and goal from the 2. A couple of plays later and Casillas had his second TD of the night to make it 40-19 with 9:16 left to play.
But on Pima’s first play after the ensuing kickoff, Wiltbank faked the reverse to Coy Miller and nobody come close to him as he went 64 yards for his third TD on the night to put Pima up 47-19 with 9:04 left in the game and the Roughriders are dancing.
After the Wildcats turned the ball over on downs, Pima ran out the clock and hit a field goal on 4th and goal from the 1 with just 21 seconds left in the game to finish the scoring on the night, 50-19.
“It is just a special season,” said coach Wilkins. “To be with this team for as long as I have; to be with these seniors and to have a boy on the field – I consider them all my sons and they’re all brothers. We love and respect Morenci for who they are, but man we just wanted to come out and we played so good tonight it was awesome.”
A lot of players on the championship football team will have just the weekend to enjoy the victory as basketball season is upon us already and Pima’s first game is set for Dec. 2 at the Arizona Lutheran Coyotes. Pima’s first home basketball game will be on Dec. 9 versus the Trivium Prep Crimson Knights. The Gila Herald has Pima as a pre-season No. 1 in 2A.
This article was updated to include the injury to Pima quarterback Seth Russell and not receiver Grant Ashby.