Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Josiah Spillman kicks the deciding field goal as Blue Ridge spoiled Morenci’s home opener on its new field, 24-21.
By Jon Johnson
MORENCI – The Morenci Wildcats debuted their new artificial turf football field with much fanfare to a packed audience Friday night but the visiting Blue Ridge Yellowjackets put a damper on the party with a 24-21 victory.
The Wildcats (2-1 conference, 3-2 overall) were poised to take the game into overtime for the second week in a row but Aydin Olguin sealed the win for Blue Ridge by blocking Anthony Ballesteros’ 28-yard field goal attempt with merely seconds remaining in the game.
Morenci was in the hole after a disastrous third quarter that saw the Wildcats commit two turnovers (one on downs at midfield and another on a punt return fumble deep in Morenci’s territory) and have two punts. Blue Ridge (3-0 conference, 4-1 overall) scored off both turnovers to turn a 14-14 tie game into a 24-14 advantage and the Yellowjackets never looked back.
Things started out well defensively for Morenci as Tristen Sanchez sacked Luke Berlin on Blue Ridge’s first offensive series and forced a punt. Sanchez leads the team with 7 sacks on the season.
Morenci took advantage of excellent starting field position and quickly moved the ball downfield.
The Wildcats were facing a 4th and 1 from the 30 when Michael Casillas burst through the line and went all the way for the score to put Morenci up 7-0. Casillas capped another 100-yard night by just making the century mark on 26 carries to average 3.8 yards per carry and he scored twice.
“That number 7 kid (Casillas) is special,” said Blue Ridge head coach Jeremy Hathcock. “I mean, he’s the most electric kid we’ve seen all year. I give credit to our defensive coordinator Alec Hathcock and our defensive staff. I’ll be honest, they came out and punched us in the mouth for a minute, but coach (Alec) Hathcock changed up our blitzes, changed the way we attached the line by shooting the gap – sometimes we had to bear crawl. So, we just changed up how we mix it up up front. We didn’t really blitz a lot, we just tried to plug all the gaps and (have) our linebackers run it down and they did.”
With the crowd noise giving Morenci a “12th man” on the field Blue Ridge immediately answered as David Simmons took the ensuing kickoff back 90 yards for the score and we’re all knotted up at 7 apiece with 4:53 left in the opening quarter.
Morenci continued its running game with Casillas and Emilio Roybal through the rest of the quarter and into the second. That opened up a passing opportunity, and Joey Seballos chucked one deep that Tristen Sanchez caught at about the 2-yard line despite having Trenyn Trickey draped all over him – Trickey was called for defensive pass interference but the penalty was declined.
After the catch, Sanchez stretched out across the end zone for the score but he was inaccurately called out of bounds at the one. With the officials taking Sanchez’s score off the board, Morenci tried to make it right and called Sanchez’s number for a direct snap to punch it in from the 1. This is a play Morenci utilizes in short-yardage situations.
However, Sanchez was stopped at the goal line and before he could try again the Wildcats were called for a procedural penalty and the ball was put back to the 6. Sanchez got the 5 yards back on another direct snap on second down, and on third down Casillas punched it in from the 1 to give Morenci a 14-7 lead after Anthony Ballesteros hit the extra-point attempt with 9:42 left in the first half.
The Yellowjackets looked to swarm the Wildcats and utilized a no-huddle spread offense to tire out Morenci’s two-way players.
“It was our plan to go tempo on them and run outside zone hit em’ back with a little bit of power RPO (run-pass option),” Hathcock said. “
Blue Ridge’s balance between Berlin hitting his receivers for first downs and running back Jace Barton getting 6 or 7 yards at a clip running out of the same formation took its toll on the Wildcats.
Morenci tried valiantly to thwart the attack, but Blue Ridge was relentless, and on 4th and 4 from the 18 Berlin nailed Matt Simington at the 6 for a first and goal.
The drive culminated with Karlo Harris punching it in from the 1 and Blue Ridge tied the game up at 14-14 with 4:30 left in the second quarter.
Morenci got the ball back but faced a 4th and 1 from the 44. Sanchez took the direct snap and ran through defenders on his way for a 36-yard pickup.
The Wildcats ran out of time, however, and after Seballos stopped the clock with just .2 of a second left in the half, Morenci lined up for a 30-yard field goal. The kick was blocked by Simmons, and the teams headed into the break tied at 14-14.
The momentum shifted to Blue Ridge in the third quarter after the defense stopped Casillas on a 4th and 1 at the Wildcats’ 48-yard line for the turnover.
Barton quickly had two big runs after the turnover to give Blue Ridge a first and goal. After a penalty pushed them back 5 yards, Berlin capped off the drive with a 14-yard TD pass to Simmons and Blue Ridge led for the first time of the night, 21-14, with 7:48 left in the third.
Morenci sputtered on offense on its next possession and was forced to punt. The defense stepped up, however, and forced Blue Ridge into a 3-and-out.
On the ensuing punt, however, the ball dribbled past Julien Aragon and when he attempted to go back and retrieve it Noah Chee took it away from him to give the ball back to Blue Ridge deep in Morenci territory.
The Wildcats’ defense held their ground and forced a field goal attempt. The kick was just good and Blue Ridge had a 24-14 lead going into the final quarter of play.
Morenci came back quickly in the fourth and after a pass interference penalty gave them the ball at the 8, Aragon took the handoff and zipped into the end zone for the score. With 10 minutes left, Morenci was within reach but still down 21-24.
Morenci needed a stop but Blue Ridge continued to move the ball downfield through the air. With the Yellowjackets threatening in Wildcats’ territory, Austyn Nelson stepped up and sacked Berlin for a big loss. The loss of yardage ended up giving Blue Ridge a 4th and 11 from Morenci’s own 24 but Berlin’s pass fell incomplete and the Yellowjackets turned the ball over on downs giving Morenci one last chance to take back the game.
It was Seballos time, and the shifty quarterback did it through the air – connecting with Marcus Lucero for the first down near mid-field – and with his legs – scrambling for a first on 4th and 5 and getting out of bounds on 3rd and 16 from the Yellowjackets’ 25. Seballos finished 6 – 12 for 80 yards in the air and had 43 yards on 6 carries.
Facing 4th and 4 from the 18 with 21.5 seconds left in the contest, Morenci head coach Rishard Davis dialed up the field goal attempt for the tie.
But just how the first half ended, Morenci’s hopes were dashed as Aydin Olguin got his mitt on the kick and blocked it to secure the 24-21 victory for Blue Ridge. Ballesteros was a perfect 3-3 on extra point attempts but had both field goal attempts blocked.
After the game, Blue Ridge head coach Jeremy Hathcock complimented the stadium’ new artificial turf playing surface and how the school and its contractor put it together.
“Unbelievable,” Jeremy Hathcock said. “I’ve been on a lot of fields and this field is the nicest.” Of course, we’re (on) day one. I love the sand composite and not the rubber in there. It feels natural. When the kids hit they just felt like they were landing in a pillow kind of for grass. So, it’s beautiful.”
The Wildcats will have a week to lick their wounds and regroup after two, heartbreaking losses back-to-back. Morenci will next host the Safford Bulldogs on Friday, Sept. 29, starting at 7 p.m.
Morenci might wish the Yellowjackets good luck as they will travel to face Safford first on Friday, Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.
In other local prep football action:
The Sabino Sabercats defeated the Safford Bulldogs 50-21. Safford (1-2 conference, 2-3 overall) will next host Morenci on Friday, Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.
The Yuma Catholic Shamrocks defeated the Thatcher Eagles 42-20. Thatcher (2-2 conference, 2-3 overall) will have its bye week and will next host Show Low on Friday, Sept. 29, starting at 7 p.m.
The Pima Roughriders (2-0 conference, 4-0 overall) defeated the St. Johns Redskins 41-0 on Saturday night. Pima quarterback Rhett Hughes threw for four TD’s and ran for another to lead Pima. The Roughriders will next travel to face the Miami Vandals on Friday, Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.
The Fort Thomas Apaches (2-3 conference, 2-3 overall) defeated the Tempe Prep Knights 64-20. The Apaches will next host the San Manuel Miners on Friday, Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.
The Duncan Wildkats (1-2 conference, 1-3 overall) had a bye week. The Wildkats will next host the Baboquivari Warriors on Friday, Sept. 22, starting at 7 p.m.