Photo By Stan Bonifacio: St. Johns’ Ira Tullous leaps over defenders on his way to a nice gain off a screen pass. St. Johns held off a rally by Thatcher and cruised back up north with a 14-7 victory.
By Jon Johnson
THATCHER – Just four plays cost Thatcher its chance to repeat as regional champions; two made by St. Johns’ offense, and two made by its defense.
“Our defense came up tough when they had to, and they were the key to the victory,” said St. Johns head coach Mike Morgan.
The Redskins (2-1 region, 5-1 conference, 6-2 overall) scored on a right sweep in the first quarter and followed it up with a 35-yard TD pass late in the second quarter to build a 14-7 lead. That was all it would need as Thatcher (2-1 region, 3-2 conference, 5-3 overall) turned the ball over twice on sustained drives – once in the third quarter and once in the fourth quarter – to halt its chances at a comeback and put a dampener on its homecoming.
Thatcher was without the services of its homecoming king and starting running back, Bretton Dodge, who is out for the season with a torn meniscus. Dodge had his knee surgically repaired and hopes to play soccer later this season.
“We knew we had to stop the veer, and they’re very good at it,” Morgan said. “My defensive coaches worked extremely hard – coach Garcia and coach John Richardson – putting this package together. We’ve worked on it, basically, since August when two-a-days started. We looked at our opponents in 2A in general and realized if you want to win you have to stop the run in 2A. It’s not like some of the other conferences where they throw the ball 30-40 times a game. So, our whole defense is geared around stopping the run.”
Up north in Eager, the crowd was enjoying a 47-12 walloping of Morenci in the dome when the Thatcher/St. Johns’ final was announced and suddenly the cheers came in for the Redskins. Why, you ask? With Thatcher losing, Round Valley is in the driver seat to take the region as the Elks are unbeaten in region play and have a 21-7 victory over the Redskins. However, if Thatcher beats Round Valley next week, St. Johns could actually win the region in a tiebreak due to its better conference record if they win Friday and everyone wins their last game of the season.
The game at Eastern Arizona College’s John Mickelson Field was a defensive battle with both teams’ offenses finding it hard to move the ball much less score.
Thatcher’s defense opened the night with a turnover as Trevan Gaylord intercepted St. Johns quarterback Ramon Sanchez and took it back 32 yards to the Redskins’ 38-yard line. The Eagles couldn’t move the ball, however, and turned it over on downs.
For the game, Thatcher had five turnovers; three times on downs, a fumble, and an interception; and punted twice. St. Johns turned the ball over twice, once on the first-quarter interception and on its last possession on downs as it attempted to run out the clock in victory formation. In between, the Redskins punted five times.
St. Johns moved the ball down the field on its third possession and broke the ice on a 3rd-and-7 from Thatcher’s 19-yard line when Tullous followed his blocker around the right side and tiptoed the sideline into the end zone. The extra-point was good and the Redskins had the early 7-0 lead.
“It was mostly teamwork,” Tullous said. “It was all positive, all good. We listened to the coaches’ good play calling and they just led us all the way.”
After both teams exchanged punts, Thatcher began to move the ball on the ground and had a big play from Gavin Bryce go 24 yards to the Redskins’ 25-yard line. A few plays later, Michael McBride helped tie the game with a 4-yard plunge for the TD.
St. Johns came right back, however, and moved the ball down the field into Thatcher’s territory, assisted by an unsportsmanlike penalty for a late hit. The crowd pointed out that the whistle was a little quiet and late as well, but the Eagles were still flagged.
Facing 4th-and-1 from Thatcher’s 38-yard line, St. Johns went big and pushed its way north for a 3-yard gain to continue the possession.
The very next play, Sanchez dropped back and dropped a dime to Dion Perry, who had used his 4.6-40 speed on a stop-and-go to get behind the double coverage of the Thatcher secondary. Perry snagged the pass and, with the extra point, the 35-yard TD put St. Johns up for good, 14-7.
“I just came up with it,” Perry said. “I saw it and I was like ‘I had to go get it.’ It was a good ball. I had to get it. I had to.”
Thatcher had its chances in the second half but twice were thwarted by turnovers.
The first occurred in the third quarter on a run by quarterback Wren. After dodging a tackle attempt by Mark Ballejos, Wren lost the ball and it was recovered by St. Johns’ Afton Cox.
In the fourth quarter, Thatcher moved the ball down the field and converted a pair of fourth downs, once by a roughing the passer penalty on a fake punt play.
The second time came on 4th-and-4 from the Redskins’ 29-yard line. Wren dropped back to pass but soon scrambled after not finding an open receiver. Wren darted down the left sideline and looked like he might score but was just nudged out of bounds at the 10-yard line to set up 1st-and-goal to go.
Thatcher shot itself in the foot with a holding penalty that pushed the Eagles back to the 20-yard line and then Tullous stepped in front of O’Donnal and intercepted Wren at the 1-yard-line to end the threat.
Thatcher’s defense forced another punt, but yet again its offense couldn’t move the ball and went only two yards on three plays. On 4th-and-8 Wren did a fantastical job scrambling to his left and then reversing his field all the way to the right and nearly converted the down but just came up half a yard short.
St. Johns attempted to run the clock out in victory formation but turned it over on downs with just 6.6 seconds left in the game.
Wyatt Larson came in as quarterback and nearly threw an interception. With just .1 of a second left, Larson dropped back for a Hail Mary toss but the defense fittingly sacked him to end the game.
“We give our defense as much time (in practice) as we do our offense and that was the key to winning tonight,” Morgan said.
Thatcher will host the Round Valley Elks (2-0 region, 4-1 conference, 5-2 overall) on Friday, Oct. 25, starting at 7 p.m., and perhaps the St. Johns crowd will cheer during its game with Benson if Thatcher knocks off the now region leader, Round Valley.
In other local prep action:
The Morenci Wildcats (0-2 region, 3-4 conference, 3-5 overall) traveled to Eager to battle with the Round Valley Elks and took it by the horns in a 12-47 loss. Morenci will next host the Pima Roughriders (0-2 region, 3-4 conference, 3-4 overall) on Friday, Oct. 25, starting at 7 p.m. to see who will remain in the 2A Region cellar.
The Safford Bulldogs (3-0 region, 6-1 conference, 6-2 overall) currently sit atop the 3A South Region after their 45-0 shellacking of the Tanque Verde Hawks (0-3 region, 0-5 conference, 0-8 overall). Safford will have its two toughest region games the next two weeks as it looks to hold onto its top spot at home against the Pusch Ridge Lions (2-1 region, 3-2 conference, 4-4 overall) on Friday, Oct. 25, starting at 7 p.m. Safford has outscored its last five opponents 213-8.
If the Bulldogs beat the Lions, it could set up a regional championship match for their last game of the season in Tucson against the favorited Sabino Sabercats (3-0 region, 4-1 conference, 6-2 overall) on Friday, Nov. 1, starting at 7 p.m. The Sabercats beat the Lions on Friday, 34-21.
The Duncan Wildkats (5-0 region, 7-1 conference, 7-1 overall) took the 1A South Region with a 34-16 victory over the Baboquivari Warriors (3-2 region, 4-4 conference, 4-4 overall).
Even with the win, however, Duncan was only given a 6-seed and will host a rubber match with the Fort Thomas Apaches (2-3 region, 5-4 conference, 5-4 overall) in the opening round of the state playoffs Friday, Oct. 25, starting at 6 p.m. Fort Thomas is coming off a 52-0 victory over the Cibecue Wildcats (0-5 region, 0-8 conference, 0-8 overall) and will look to avenge Duncan’s 26-20 victory over them from Oct. 4.