Safford’s elite season ends with playoff loss to Sabino

Gila Herald Photo: Draven Carsten (20) makes his way downfield. Carsten scored Sabino’s last touchdown on its way to a 30-19 victory over Safford on Friday night.

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – An overpowering offense did what no team has done to Safford all year and a second-half blitzkrieg of scores doomed the Bulldogs to an early playoff exit as Sabino avenged their previous loss to Safford and left the field victorious, 30-19 in a game that wasn’t that close. 

One of the big reasons for the Sabercats’ victory was their ability to run the ball. Sabino put up 183 yards rushing on Safford’s defense, nearly double what it had in its loss the previous week, 6-28.

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

“You challenge some of our guys and they take it personally,” Sabino head coach Ryan McBrayer said after the game. “They came out with a little more determination. They had their senior night, regional championship, a lot was going on and that team (Safford) was a great freakin’ team and they just kicked our butt at our house. So, we had to get a little fire lit under us and we came after it today. I’m very proud of our O-line especially; we had about five different dudes carry the ball (and) they all ran hard. It was a very great effort by lots of guys.”  

Sabino quarterback AJ Skaggs was his usual self and went 16-26 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. In total, the Sabercats put 463 yards of offense on the Bulldogs.

“It feels amazing,” Skaggs said. “They ruined our Senior Night last week and they took that from us, so it’s good to come into their house and take one from them.” 

One of Skaggs’ favorite targets was receiver Diego Armijo, who caught two TD’s and ran in another one for good measure. 

Defensively, the Sabercats forced the Bulldogs into four turnovers, including three fumbles, and stifled Safford’s powerful running game for most of the night. 

Gila Herald Photo: Safford quarterback Mason Duros drops back to pass.

Safford had played one of its finest regular seasons, and after running the table in the region was crowned 3A South Region Champions for the first time in 21 years. That all came crashing down Friday night, however, as the team’s season ended earlier than expected. 

The game started out bad for the Bulldogs as quarterback Mason Duros couldn’t find an open receiver and fumbled the ball away on a strip-sack on the first offensive play from scrimmage. 

The Bulldogs’ defense held as Angel Atencio intercepted Skaggs on 4th-and-13, in one of Skaggs’ few missteps of the evening. 

Gila Herald Photo: Sabino quarterback AJ Skaggs throws to a receiver. Skaggs threw for 280 yards and two touchdowns on the night.

Safford was forced to punt, however, and Sabino utilized the good field position and on 3rd-and-4, Skaggs hit Jayson Petty for a 26-yard pickup that set the Sabercats up with a  1st-and-goal from the 5. 

Two plays later, Armijo escaped the grasp of Brennon Jurado and scored to break the ice, 7-0 Sabino. 

After another Safford punt, Sabino showed off its newfound running game as sophomore Ken Blackman torched the Bulldogs for big yardage. 

Skaggs soon went back to the air and hooked up with Sam Valenzuela for a 31-yard pickup to the 11-yard line. 

The Bulldogs’ defense held, however, and limited the Sabercats to a 22-yard field goal by Armijo. 

Utilizing the “Wildcat” offense on its next possession, Safford’s CJ Scrivner celebrated being back after his one-game suspension by bursting through the line for a 51-yard TD run on a direct snap. 

Gila Herald Photo: Dylan Dorrell (30) gets ready to receive the handoff.

The teams would both move the ball down the field afterward in the second quarter, but Safford was stopped short on 4th-and-1 and Sabino had two TD passes knocked down to send them to halftime with the Sabercats’ up 10-7.  

Sabino came out on fire in the second half as Skaggs and Armijo continued their connection. Early in the quarter, Skaggs found Armijo deep down the right sideline and the receiver made the catch and managed to stay in bounds, then made a defender miss and outran everyone else for a 54-yard TD to put Sabino up 16-7.

The Bulldogs began coming back on the ground, but Korbin Muklebust aimed his helmet right on the ball as Robert White burst through the middle and Michael Masunas recovered the fumble for Sabino.  

Skaggs then capitalized on the turnover by scrambling away from a sack and hitting Armijo in the end zone for a 19-yard TD to quickly extend the lead to 23-7. 

“I was supposed to roll left but I didn’t like anything I saw over there and I just saw that guy coming so I changed direction real quick, found Diego and touchdown,” Skaggs said. 

Safford coughed the ball up again as Eduardo Ogaz was fighting hard for extra yards and got pummeled from behind by Luke Thompson. Sabino’s Brian Castellanos fell on the ball to give it back to Sabino. 

Safford made its own big defensive play as Valenzuela came around the right side on 4th-and-5 from the Bulldogs’ 16-yard line. Fernando Gonzales pried the ball out of Valenzuela’s hands prior to Valenzuela hitting the ground and recovered the football for Safford, however, the officials determined Valenzuela’s forward progress had been stopped and awarded Sabino a first down. 

Gila Herald Photo: Eduardo Ogaz (10) receives a handoff from Mason Duros.

On the very next play, Draven Carsen went up the gut for a 5-yard TD and Sabino was up 30-7 midway through the fourth quarter. 

The Bulldogs never gave up the fight, however, and Duros floated a screen pass to Justin Torrio on 3rd-and-1 from their own 34-yard line and Torrio did the rest, racing 56 yards for the touchdown. A 2-point conversion try was no good and Sabino still up 30-13 with just more than 6 minutes left to play 

The Sabercats ran out the clock on their next possession but gave the ball back when Skaggs threaded the needle between two Bulldogs to get it to Armijo, but the duo picked up 16 on the 4th down play when they needed 17. 

Scrivner then gave the Bulldogs some breathing room with a nice run to the 26. And then he caught a Duros offering down the left sideline and took it all the way to the 5-yard line. Duros then tossed a 5-yard TD to number 44 (who wasn’t listed on the roster) to end the scoring on the night as the Sabercats ended the Bulldogs’ season with the upset, 30-19. 

“It was a great team victory, but I just want to shout out number 5 for Safford (3A Region Player of the Year Samuel Tobias who was injured in the previous game and ended his season) that guy was one heck of a player; definitely a difference-maker,” McBrayer said. “We wish him the best as his recovery goes on and we hope he goes and wins the state championship in track and whatever else he has going for him.”

Sabino will next travel to take on American Leadership Academy Queen Creek in the second round of the 3A State Playoffs. ALA downed the Payson Longhorns 49-13 in their first-round game.