Pima tops Morenci for 2A Salt Region Championship

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: The Pima Roughriders celebrate winning the 2A Salt Region Championship and overall number 1 seed in the state tournament with a 21-20 victory over Morenci on Friday night.

Roughriders secure overall number 1 seed in 2A State Tournament

By Jon Johnson


MORENCI – The Pima Roughriders utilized a 2-minute drill that included two improbable deep tipped passes for completions and an NFL-type final offensive play from its quarterback, Seth Russell, to propel Pima over Morenci 22-21 on Friday. With the win, Pima (5-0 region, 9-1 overall) takes the 2A Salt Region and overall number 1 seed in the 2A State Tournament.

“It’s just amazing,” said Pima head coach Josh Wilkins. “All year long, we told ourselves we were a good team but we weren’t quite a great team yet. And I just told the boys, tonight we came out and we were a great team.”

Pima scored the go-ahead touchdown on a 6-yard pass from Russell to Jaxon John, who did a little bit of everything for the Roughriders, with just 22 seconds left in the game. On the play, Russell appeared to begin a designed run play but got stopped in the middle in a glut of players. He popped to the outside and appeared to start to run for the corner but then he suddenly pulled up prior to the line of scrimmage and swung a pass to a streaking John, who caught it cleanly for the score. Pima’s Tucker Wilkins then sealed the victory with an interception as time ticked down.   

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima quarterback Seth Russell tosses a pass to Grant Ashby before Ashby even makes his cut.

No. 1 Pima will open its playoff season hosting No. 16 Chinle (3-0 region, 3-6 overall) at Edd Hubbard Field in Pima on Friday, Nov. 4, starting at 7 p.m. Chinle is ranked 29 but is an automatic qualifier for winning its region.

If Pima advances, it will host the next playoff game on Friday, Nov. 11, versus either No. 8 Camp Verde or No. 9 San Tan Charter. 

No. 2 Morenci (4-1 region, 9-1 overall) will open the playoffs hosting No. 15 Tanque Verde (4-1 region, 5-5 overall) at “The Hill” in Morenci on Friday, Nov. 4, starting at 7 p.m. Morenci previously beat Tanque Verde 44-0 when the two teams met in the regular season Aug. 26.

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

If Morenci advances, it will host the next round as well on Friday, Nov. 11, versus either No. 7 Tonopah Valley or No. 10 Heritage.

“We have so much respect for Morenci’s team,” coach Wilkins said. “We fully expect to see them (again.) We hope the No. 1 (QB) is (at) full strength. We appreciate the hospitality here. It was just a great football game by two great teams. We really appreciate them and look forward to seeing them later.”  

With both teams being ranked No. 1 and No. 2, the only way Pima and Morenci will see each other again this season is for the state championship.      

Pima 21 Morenci 20

In a matchup of No. 1 versus No. 2 that many dubbed “the state championship before the state championship” expectations of a competitive game were high and they did not disappoint. Fans certainly got their money’s worth Friday night and the packed stadium in Morenci rocked all night with a huge home crowd and “the largest visiting crowd” he had ever seen for a regular season matchup, a longtime fan who has been going to the games for 40 years said.   

The game couldn’t have started out much better for the Wildcats than it did. After being backed up 5-yards for a procedural penalty, Morenci kicked off to start the game and Pima’s Jaxon John fielded it at about the 5. As John began to head up the middle, however, Morenci’s John Provencio knocked out the ball and fellow Wildcat Austyn Nelson returned it 13 yards to the Pima 19, and just like that Morenci was in the Red Zone. 

Michael Casillas then took a long run to the 3 and ran it in on the next play to put Morenci up 6-0 after a failed 2-point conversion. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s Tucker Wilkins lends a hand to Morenci’s Michael Casillas after stopping the running back.

After a Pima punt, the Roughriders’ defense held and Seth Russell broke through and blocked a punt attempt from the Wildcats. Leland Thompson recovered the ball at the 38 and returned it to about the 20 to give Pima the ball knocking on the Red Zone. 

“We handled adversity well,” coach Wilkins said. “I’m just so proud of these (boys). We have goals for the end of November and this is how you live up to them.”

After a tough 4th and 7 conversion completion to Jaxon John, who took a hard hit by Morenci’s Dillen Aker, The Roughriders finished the drive with a 2-yard dive by Jeremiah Martinez. Pima then ran a successful fake extra-point attempt and Thompson ran in the 2-point conversion to give Pima the lead, 8-6. It would stay that way through the half, but just barely. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Morenci quarterback Daylen Johnson was carried off the field late in the second quarter after tweaking his ankle during a punt return. Johnson did not return to action.

After an eight-minute sustained Morenci drive ended in a punt, Pima also failed to convert and punted back to Morenci late in the second quarter. On the play, Morenci’s starting quarterback, Daylen Johnson, fielded the kick and began to return to his right. During the return, Johnson appeared to attempt to plant his left leg and his ankle tweaked. Johnson immediately went down untouched and was on the field for a few minutes until he was assisted off and evaluated more thoroughly on the sideline. He did not return to action.

The Roughriders got the ball back with time running out in the half and moved it down to the 5-yard line by utilizing quick passes to the sidelines. With just seconds left, Russell threw one to John in the end zone but the pass sailed just high of the receiver’s hands. 

Pima then lined up for a field goal attempt with just 3 seconds left in the half and ran a fake with Jaxon John rolling to his right. John spied Grant Ashby open in the back of the end zone, but his pass also was just slightly too high and the teams went into the break with Pima clinging to an 8-6 advantage. 

In the third quarter, Morenci’s backup quarterback Seballos played well and had a big 24-yard completion to Derek Saenz on 3rd and 11 to put Morenci in Pima territory. Casillas finished the drive with a 15-yard TD run on 4th and 4, and this time Morenci’s 2-point attempt was good as Seballos threw the completion and Morenci was back on top, 14-8. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Morenci head coach Joseph Garcia gives instruction to backup QB Joseph Seballos.

Pima then continued its offensive prowess and moved the ball down the field as it had done at the end of the second quarter. However, the result was also the same as Morenci’s goal line defense stiffened and forced a 4th and 3 from the Wildcats’ own 7-yard line. Russell then dropped back to pass but Seballos ended the threat with the interception and the teams went into the fourth quarter with Morenci holding a lead and its possession-heavy offense driving. 

Then, tragedy struck for Morenci as what may have been a lateral pass was tipped by Pima, Saenz still caught the pass but then retreated backward as the defense approached. Saenz then appeared to attempt to throw the ball, but he was caught in the backfield for a big loss and the Wildcats were forced to punt. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Morenci backup QB Joesph Seballos makes the handoff.

Pima then got the ball back in excellent field position at the 45 and ran their own halfback pass play. Russell tossed it backward to John, who then hurled it to a racing Grant Ashby, who took the pass and headed down the sideline toward the pylon but was just knocked out at the 2 by Saenz. 

Hayden Blair ran in the 2-yard TD, and John kicked the extra point to put Pima on top, 15-14. However, Morenci had the ball and plenty of time left on the clock. 

The Wildcats’ offense converted multiple 4th down plays on its following drive, including a must-need catch by Saenz who climbed the ladder over the middle to come down with a 7-yard offering from Seballos on 4th and 6. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Tristen Sanchez scores a 39-yard TD to put Morenci up late in the fourth quarter.

The very next play, Seballos swung out a quick screen to Tristen Sanchez who took it north-south, broke a tackle, and zoomed 39 yards to put Morenci up 20-15 with 2:20 left in the game. Morenci again attempted a 2-point conversion and handed the ball back to Sanchez, but Pima linebacker Brock Haws came down the line perfectly and caught Sanchez from behind just short of the goal line, leaving Morenci with just a 5-point lead. 

Facing 3rd and short with time running out, Russell dropped way back and through one deep that was tipped by the Wildcats’ Dillen Aker. However, Jaxon John stayed with the ball and make the completion. John raced down the sidelines into Morenci territory, but a block in the back moved the ball back. 

Then on 3rd and 10 from the 45, Russell dropped back again but this time he has Morenci’s Donovan Vozza draped all over him as he hurls one downfield. A Morenci defender makes a leap for the ball but just misses. However, the distraction was enough to cause the ball to bounce off John. Luckily for Pima, Grant Ashby was in the vicinity and caught the rebound in the air. Ashby then ran down to the 20 for a 35-yard gain. 

Russell connected with Ashby again, on a 14-yard reception to make it 1st and goal at the 6 with the clock running and just 37 seconds to play. 

Russell then hit John on the 6-yard TD with 22 seconds left to win the game, 21-20. With both teams being ranked No. 1 and No. 2, the only way they will see each other again this season is for the state championship.      

Morenci executed its game plan perfectly and dominated the time of possession. It had long, sustained drives of more than eight minutes to end the first quarter and open the second and another 6-minute drive to open the third quarter. Its defense forced two turnovers in the Red Zone but the Wildcats still fell short as Pima danced last and longest on the night – or until they shut off the lights. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s defense converges on the runner.

For those who may comment on Johnson going out late in the second. It’s true, Morenci struggled on the immediate next series and had to punt it away, but what happened in the second half was somewhat different altogether. 

The Wildcats had a better offensive half in the second with backup quarterback Joey Seballos at the helm than they did in the first half. Seballos also had more completions, a touchdown pass, and a 2-point conversion pass. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Pima QB Seth Russell hits Jaxon John for a gain to the 5-yard line late in the second quarter.

In other local prep football action: 

In 3A, Thatcher defeated Palo Verde Magnet 55 -12 to complete its perfect regular season. 

No. 1 Thatcher (5-0 region, 10-0 overall) will begin its post-season quest to run the table with a home game against No. 15 Benson (1-4 region, 3-4 conference) at John Mickelson Field at EAC on Friday, Nov. 4, starting at 7 p.m. Thatcher previously defeated Benson 51-0 on Oct. 7. 

Photo By Steve Carter/Special to the Gila Herald: The Thatcher Eagles completed their perfect regular season and will host a playoff game Friday, Nov. 4, as the overall number-one seed in the 3A State Tournament.

(Tucson) Pusch Ridge defeated Safford 62-7.  Safford finished the season ranked 17 one spot out of the playoffs.