Safford goes to 2-0 with victory over Pima

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Christian Smith (28) and the Safford Bulldogs ran away from the Pima Roughriders in the second half on their way to a 23-6 victory.

By Jon Johnson

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

SAFFORD – First-year Safford head coach Bob Park started off his tenure 2-0 after the Bulldogs bested the Pima Roughriders on Friday night, 23-6. 

In a matchup that hadn’t been played in 76 years, the contest was close throughout and the Roughriders were only a score away from the Bulldogs until the fourth quarter when a pair of miscues helped Safford pull away for good. 

“(We) came up with a game plan that we thought would work tonight and just asked the boys to believe in it and execute it and I think they did that,” said Safford head coach Bob Park.

“We felt like if we could keep pounding it and be aggressive physically we felt that, eventually as the game went on, we would have the advantage.” 

One of Safford’s standout players was running back Christian Smith, who was a big part of the Bulldogs’ running game. Smith bookended Safford’s scoring with a 25-yard reception from quarterback JoJo Ruelas to break the ice in the second quarter and a 1-yard TD plunge in the fourth to finish the scoring on the night.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Pima head coach Jim Hughes instructs quarterback Seth Russell.

“We just got manhandled,” said Pima head coach Jim Hughes. “They had a great game plan. They came out, ran behind those bit linemen – the Smith kid ran hard and they just beat us down. Bottom line, they were just smash mouth and we couldn’t match it.” 

Smith also played well defensively and had an interception, along with teammate Kaleb Cordova. 

“Our linemen were amazing tonight,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t have made those yards without my linemen. At the end of the day, they had those open holes for me and from there I just did my thing . . . We just need to work on executing plays a little bit better. We can always get better.”

Pima’s defense held Safford at bay in the first quarter as Seth Russell sacked Ruelas for a 10-yard loss on 4th and 5. 

The Roughriders then moved the ball down the field behind big runs from Brody Brown and Russell, the latter picking up a 1st down on a 4th and 2 with a QB sneak up the middle. As is with the larger quarterbacks in the NFL, whenever Pima needs to pick up a yard or two, it’s going to be difficult to stop the 6’6” Russell from getting it when he is behind center. 

The Roughriders’ drive was cut just short of the goalie, however, when Ruelas got his hat on the ball as sophomore Hayden Blair was heading up the middle for good yardage. The ball popped out and Brenden Gunnett recovered for Safford to stop the threat. The quarter would end with both teams scoreless. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: QB Seth Russell attempts a pass.

After a healthy amount of runs by Smith, Safford had a 3rd and short when the play call to drop back and pass came through. 

Initially, it looked as if Pepper Hughes was in line for the sack, but Ruelas bought just enough time to get it away and threw a perfect pass to Smith that was just over the outstretched arms of defender Leland Thompson. Smith gathered in the 25-yard toss for the first score of the night and the extra point had Safford up, 7-0. 

After starting the following drive from their own 5-yard line due to the kickoff going over the Roughriders’ heads and good coverage by Safford, Pima began to again move the ball downfield. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: QB Jaxon John got a facemask full of grass after getting sacked from his blindside.

That ended, however, when Fernando Gonzales came around the right side as Pima quarterback Jaxon John began to drop back. Gonzales had a free shot on John from his backside and John never saw him coming. The clean hit rocked John, knocking his head back in a whiplash motion. Somehow John hung onto the ball, but after lying on the ground for a few minutes he walked off the field under his own power but did not return for the rest of the game. The two teams then went into halftime with Safford up 7-0. 

In the second half, Safford continued to utilize Smith and added in runs by Kaleb Cordova and sophomore Chris Shatto. 

After a run by Smith down to the 3-yard line, Cordova capped off the Bulldogs’ initial second-half drive with a TD plunge. The snap was mishandled on the extra point attempt, however, and the Bulldogs were up 13-0. 

That didn’t last long, however, as Hayden Blair took the ensuing kickoff back straight up the gut and then peeled off to the right sideline. Blair was off to the races and nearly had the touchdown, but after racing 84 yards he was caught at the 2-yard line by Nephi Fox. 

As with the fourth-down play previously, the Roughriders ran a QB sneak for Russell straight up the middle and the Pima big man scored with ease. With their kicker, John, being out due to injury, Pima attempted to go for the 2-point conversion but failed, trailing 6-13. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Pima’s Hayden Blair (7) returns a kickoff 84 yards before being caught at the 2-yard line by Nephi Fox (19).

Safford returned to its running game but found itself facing a 3rd and 10 just outside of the red zone. Ruelas attempted to throw for the first down, but Pima’s Wyatt Wiltbank tipped the pass away to force fourth down. 

The Bulldogs then lined up for a field goal, and Nephi Fox just got it past the outstretched arms of Pima’s Tucker Wilkins to score the 32-yard kick putting Safford up 16-6. 

Pima attempted to come back through the air, but Russell through two consecutive interceptions to Cordova and Smith, and the Bulldogs put the game away with a 1-yard dive by Smith. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: First-year Safford head coach Bob Park has gone 2-0 to open the season.

“The boys are starting to believe in what we’re doing here,” Park said. “And it’s starting to pay off . . . (I’m) just proud of the boys. We’re excited to get off to this start and we’ll just keep taking it one at a time.”

Safford will next host Empire (1-0) on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m.

Hughes said he appreciates playing tough teams a division higher than his to help his team prepare to face their region and division rivals. 

“This will help us,” Hughes said. “When you play teams like this you find your weaknesses. It exposes it, and so, hopefully, we can grow from this and move on. The big picture is we want to be in the dance at the end of the year, and hopefully, we can get there.” 

Pima will next host Thatcher (2-0) on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m. Hughes said he anticipates Jaxon John could be available for this Friday’s game.

“If we can get out of these games healthy, that’s the key, staying healthy,” Hughes said. “Tonight we got banged up and we gotta regroup for next week. You know, if I had made the schedule – we didn’t make the schedule – If I had made the schedule, I want Safford and Thatcher but I don’t really necessarily want to play them back-to-back.”    

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Safford cheerleaders rev up the crowd.

In other prep football action: 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Christian Smith (28) prepares to catch a 25-yard TD pass just past defender Leland Thompson.


Thatcher (2-0) blew out Florence (0-2), 56-7. The Eagles will next travel to face Pima on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m.


Morenci (1-1) lost to Round Valley (2-0), 7-46. The Wildcats will next host Globe (0-2) on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m. 


Duncan (1-2) lost at San Manuel (2-0), 8-38. The Wildkats will next host St. David (2-0) on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m. The game will mark the halfway point in the Wildkats’ regular season. 

Fort Thomas (1-0) had its game against Cicero Prep (0-2) canceled due to quarantine. The Apaches are expected to next host Baboquivari on Friday, Sept. 10, starting at 7 p.m. 

To view a photo album from the Safford/Pima game click here.