Pima’s defense smothers Willcox in semis

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Seth Russell sacks Ayden Fuentes for a big loss. The Pima Roughriders defeated the Willcox Cowboys 35-7 on Friday night to move on to the 2A State Football Championship.

Pima and Morenci to vie for 2A State Championship/Thatcher to face Eastmark in 3A State Championship

By Jon Johnson


SAFFORD – Bookended by a couple of Seth Russell to Grant Ashby touchdown passes and backed by a dominating defense, the Pima Roughriders cruised to a 35-7 victory over the No. 4 Willcox Cowboys on Saturday night to punch their ticket to the state championship.

“We talked about before the game that the King of the Jungle is the lion. He’s not the biggest; he’s not the fastest; he’s not the smartest, but he’s hungry and he’s gotta feed his tribe,” said Pima head coach Josh Wilkins. “He’s gotta feed his clan. So, we came out like lions tonight and we never stopped. We just kept going and going and going. And it’s paying off for us.”  

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

The No. 1 Pima Roughriders (12-1) will face the No. 2 Morenci Wildcats (12-1) for the state championship. Morenci easily defeated No. 3 Scottsdale Christian Academy 71-40 to advance. The game is set to be played at Safford High School on Saturday, Nov. 26, starting at 6 p.m. 

Pima earned the No. 1 ranking in stunning fashion, coming back in the last 30 seconds to retake the lead against Morenci during a 21-20 victory in the final regular season game on Oct. 28. That victory also gave Pima the 2A San Pedro Region Championship. 

The loss is Morenci’s lone blemish on an otherwise stellar season that has seen the Wildcats dominate the competition. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Hayden Blair makes his way past some defenders.

In 3A action: The No. 1 Thatcher Eagles (13-0) hope to finish its unbeaten season by besting the No. 2 Eastmark Firebirds (12-1). Thatcher defeated No. 4 Show Low 21-7 to advance to the championship game against Eastmark, which defeated No. 3 Pusch Ridge 45-10.

The 3A Championship Game is scheduled to be played at Desert Vista High School on Saturday, Nov. 26, starting at 6 p.m. The address is 16440 S. 32nd St., Phoenix, in the Ahwatukee area.   

Eastmark’s lone loss of the season came at the hands, or shall we say feet, of Thatcher during a last-second field goal that lifted the Eagles over the Firebirds 31-30 in the second game of the season back on Aug. 26. 

Pima 35 Willcox 7

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Kash Macumber attempts a pass.

The Pima Roughriders’ defense held the Willcox Cowboys in check and didn’t allow an offensive score. The Cowboys’ offense ended the day with three punts and five turnovers on downs. 

Conversely, Pima left points on the board a couple of times but still dominated with five TDs. Pima punted twice in the fourth quarter after the game was decided and the bench was cleared, but it turned it over on downs once and had two lost fumbles.

“Our defense is how you win championships,” coach Wilkins said. “Defense has been our rock all year long. They set us up and they get the offense the ball back.” 

After Pima had a 4th down 12-yard TD pass from Seth Russell to Wyatt Wiltbank called back for a helmet-to-helmet penalty, Russell was sacked for a loss and Willcox got the ball at mid-field. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Coy Miller escapes the grasp of a defender late in the second quarter.

The Cowboys couldn’t do anything against the Roughriders’ defense though and had to punt for the second straight possession. 

Jaxon John nullified the punt with a big return back across mid-field and Pima was set with good field position to start its second series. 

It didn’t take long to pan out as Russell hit Pierce Ashby for a 10-yard completion and on the very next play connected with his brother, Grant Ashby, on a 34-yard TD pass to open the night’s scoring and put Pima up 7-0 at the end of the first quarter. 

Pima took to the ground in the second quarter, moving the ball up and down the field and scoring on a 25-yard zip by Wiltbank, and a 1-yard dive by Jeremiah Martinez, which was set up in part by a big Wiltbank run that just got knocked out of bounds before the pylon. 

Up 21-0 with 1:28 left to go in the half, Pima continued to up its defensive pressure and began calling timeouts to preserve what few seconds remained. 

The strategy worked to perfection, and after a three-and-out, Willcox punted the ball back to Pima with about a minute left on the clock – earning an extra possession before going into halftime. And with Pima deferring in the first half, the Roughriders would receive the second-half kickoff as well. 

But they weren’t quite done with the first half. Russell and his crew ran the two-minute drill to perfection and he hit Jaxon John over the middle to start the drive before connecting with Coy Miller on consecutive throws. Miller took the second one toward the goal line and collided with Landon Ward at the 5-yard line and fell down at the 2. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Pima head coach Josh Wilkins surveys the scene.

On 1st and goal with just 15 seconds left in the half Wiltbank was set to score but Kash Macumber poked the ball out and Cristian Pando recovered in the end zone for the touchback and Pima had to be satisfied with a 21-0 lead at the half. 

The third quarter saw more of the same as Pima was set up by another big Wiltbank run for 33 yards. Tuddy Smart punched it in from 2-yards out to give Pima a 28-0 lead. 

Willcox never stopped fighting, however, and the offense had its best series in the third when Pando and Fuentes started to break off some runs and Fuentes brought a big one down to the 8 for a 1st and goal. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: The Pima defense dominated Wilcox and didn’t allow any offensive points.

Pima’s goal line defense stepped up, however, and kept the Cowboys out of the end zone as Macumber’s pass on 4th and goal from the 12 fell incomplete.

“All do respect to number 10 (Pando) and number 7 (Fuentes), they are outstanding running backs,” coach Wilkins said. “But we focused on that and practiced on that and pounded that and it just worked out for us.” 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Wyatt Wiltbank breaks off on another big run.

The Roughriders then moved the ball down the field and finished their scoring on the night when Russell hit Grant Ashby on a 17-yard TD to go up 35-0. Grant joined the team after the first game of the season and had two TD catches on the night.

“I just want to thank my teammates, especially Seth for throwing the ball,” Grant said. “I’m glad the team let me back on the team and I could play tonight. We played a great game, so I can’t wait to go to the championship game.”   

Willcox got on the board in the fourth quarter when Pando returned a 60-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown. The video replay showed the freshman runner was actually down prior to losing the ball, but it was incorrectly called on the field. 

Steve Carter Photo/Special to the Gila Herald: Assistant coach Lee Haws has a discussion with quarterback/defensive end Seth Russell who played big on both sides of the ball.