So close . . .

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Quarterback Daylen Johnson rolls out and looks for tight end Tristen Sanchez. Morenci came up short against Arizona Lutheran Academy, 28-14, and is the 2A State Football Runners-Up.

Morenci Wildcats are the 2021 2A State Football Runners-Up

By Jon Johnson

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

GILBERT – The No. 4 Morenci Wildcats finished their season as the 2021 2A State Football Runners-Up after falling to the No. 2 Arizona Lutheran Coyotes, 28-14, on Saturday. 

The two teams appeared evenly matched and mirrored each other as two, hard-nose, smash-mouth football teams. But it was the Coyotes’ success on the ground that won the day (the Coyotes had two rushers with more than 100 yards) and a two-play sequence that changed the whole game.

“They ran a lot of similar plays,” said Morenci head coach Joe Garcia after the game. “They just came up on the good side this time. I’m super proud of my guys. They came out, they played hard, they got after it for four full straight. It just didn’t end up on our side. Hopefully, we can get back here real soon.”  

The Coyotes (13-1) were the foil of the 2A San Pedro Region these playoffs, taking out its top-three teams on their way to the championship. First, Arizona Lutheran defeated Pima in the quarterfinals, 33-27, in a game they trailed late; then they defeated 2A San Pedro Region Champion Benson in the semifinals, 20-7, before besting Morenci (11-3) in the championship game.

In the first half, it was a game of time possession as Arizona Lutheran ran off nearly eight minutes of clock on its opening possession, which culminated with a 1-yard QB sneak by Jorge Lomeli for the touchdown and the Coyotes were up early, 7-0. The Coyotes would go on to score on four out of five possessions and had only one turnover (a loss on downs in the third quarter) compared to three punts and one turnover (an INT) for Morenci. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Arizona Lutheran’s Jacob Holguin (14) eyes an opening big enough for a truck.

Morenci showed its mettle on its first possession, however – converting two 4th-down plays, including a 4th and 4 in which quarterback Daylen Johnson hit Brandon Eriquez for a 19-yard pickup to the 5-yard line. 

Michael Casillas finished the drive with a TD dive on 3rd and inches and Morenci tied the game up at 7-7 in the second quarter. 

At this point, both teams had only had one possession each, both resulting in touchdowns. Now, Arizona Lutheran had the ball and was moving downfield with time running out in the first half. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: QB Daylen Johnson prepares to hand the ball off to Michael Casillas (7), who scored to tie the game at 7 in the second quarter.

With less than a minute left in the second quarter, the Coyotes faced a 4th and 6. Lomeli took the snap and began to run but then pulled up and hit Luke Grippo for the first down at the 2-yard line on Lomeli’s only completion of the game. Gabriel Mckenney then finished the drive with a 2-yard plunge with just 19 seconds left in the second quarter, and Arizona Lutheran took a 14-7 lead into halftime. Mckenney finished with 116 yards on 15 carries. 

After a Morenci punt in the third quarter, Arizona Lutheran was driving with a 7-point lead. Morenci needed a stop, and on 4th and 1, Mckenney was smothered short of the line to gain. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Donovan Vozza (11) is held as Jacob Holguin (14) runs past.

Then it was Johnson’s turn on offense as he scrambled 46 yards on the biggest offensive play for Morenci on the night. 

Just as it appeared Morenci was going down to get the game-tying score tragedy occurred for the Wildcats. 

On 4th and 9, Johnson slung a pass for Tristen Sanchez but Jack Schaumberg deflected it. Doing his best Franco Harris immaculate reception imitation, Jacob Holguin snatched the spinning ball just before it hit the ground and scored the interception. On the very next play, Holguin then did it on offense as he burst through the middle and he was just gone – 66 yards to stun the Morenci crowd and put the Coyotes up 21-7 near the end of the third quarter. Holguin finished with 152 yards on 18 carries 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: The Coyotes runner breaks an arm tackle attempt by Morenci’s Tristen Sanchez (82).

Those two plays were backbreakers for the Wildcats, who then punted on their next possession. Arizona Lutheran came right back with what else but its running game as its running backs kept getting big yardage both through big holes made by lineman and by a number of yards after contact as well. 

Gideon Enter then put the nail in the casket with a 3-yard TD to make it 28-7 late in the fourth, but Morenci never gave up. 

Kaden Summer sparked the offense with a 22-yard kickoff runback followed by a first down where he just bullied his way to the sticks. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: The Morenci fans turned out for their team at Saturday’s championship game.

Johnson then hit Sanchez for a screen that Sanchez turned into a 20-yard gain and Derek Saenz on a desperation heave to the 20-yard line. 

Summer got a taste of pay dirt as he bounced the ball outside and stiff-armed Isaiah Gonzales to the ground. Summer then raced 17 yards to the end zone to make it 28-14. 

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: From left, Shawn Hudman and Brendon Enriquez hold the 2A State Football Runners-Up trophy.

After Schaumberg covered the ensuing onside kick attempt, however, there was nothing else Morenci could do as Arizona Lutheran Academy went into victory formation and downed the ball to win its first-ever 2A State Football Championship. 

“I’m super proud of my guys for working – super proud of my coaching staff,” Garcia said. “I’m proud of the community for coming out and supporting the boys. We look forward to putting in another hard off-season work and hopefully get back here again next year.”

Click here to view the Gila Herald’s Photo Album of the championship game.  

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