Thatcher beats Safford, moves one spot ahead for playoffs

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: The Thatcher Eagles celebrate winning the Open Loop Energy Trophy with a 27-14 victory over the Safford Bulldogs on Friday night.

Both teams to travel for first round of state playoffs

By Jon Johnson

SAFFORD – The Thatcher Eagles (3-1 region, 4-3 overall) took command of their rivalry game against the Safford Bulldogs (1-2 region, 4-2 overall) with a stunning opening to the third quarter to retain the Open Loop Energy Trophy with the 27-14 victory.

The win gave the Eagles three consecutive wins to end their regular season.

After scoring on its opening drive in the third quarter, Thatcher kicked a bloop onside kick and recovered the ball to steal a possession. The Eagles then turned that turnover into another score and went up by 13 before Safford even touched the ball in the second half.

“That changed everything,” said Thatcher head coach Daniel Jones. “It was punching back and forth. You could see them kind of tilt a little bit after that. And then to go down and score – that changed a lot.”

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald-Screenshot By Stan Bonifacio

With the win, Thatcher moved up to No. 12 in the state standings and will travel to take on No. 5 Arizona College Prep, starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11.

Safford finished one spot behind Thatcher at No. 13 and will travel to take on No. 4 American Leadership Academy – Gilbert, starting at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 11.

“It was a big game to get into the playoffs,” said sophomore quarterback/receiver Brandon Napier. “It was probably the biggest game we’ve ever had. We all performed well. The line – this is the best I’ve ever seen them play . . . Everybody did their job.”

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Brayden Oliver goes for a first down catch against Safford.

It was a turnover that led to Thatcher’s opening score as well, as the Eagles got the ball in good field position after C.J. Scrivner couldn’t quite hold onto a handoff and the ball was recovered by Thatcher’s Brayden Oliver.

What was surprising was how well Thatcher threw the ball. Known for its hard running, Wyatt Larson showed that the Eagles have a viable passing game as well as he connected with multiple receivers throughout the game.

As Thatcher moved the ball downfield, Michael McBride broke the ice with a 1-yard TD on a 4th and inches play.

Safford came right back, however, and Scrivner showed off his wheels on this big 28-yard pickup into Thatcher territory.

On the very next play, Eduardo Ogaz found room to roam around the left side and made it to the 6 before he was dragged down by Slade Shupe.

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Slade Shupe (12) hits the hole running.

Christian Smith then finished the drive with a 6-yard TD and Safford tied the game up at 7 apiece.

The Bulldogs then forced a turnover late in the half as Jared Garcia stepped in front of Larson’s offering and gives the Bulldogs the ball just inside the Eagles’ territory.

Safford QB Landen Shurtz clocked the ball with one second left on the clock, but a 42-yard field goal went just wide right and the teams went into halftime tied 7-7.

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Brandon Napier (6) defends against Safford’s Jejdrique Chavez (12).

Thatcher came out in the third quarter and went right back to the air with Larson connecting with Oliver on two attempts on the drive to move the chains into Safford territory.

Then on 4th and 1 sophomore Brandon Napier went under center and kept the ball as he goes untouched 31 yards to paydirt to put Thatcher up 13-7.

Then the play that really turned the tide happened as Thatcher performed a bloop onside kick and Landon Peterson recovered the ball in Safford territory to steal the possession.

Mark Wren then started to wear down the defense and had a couple of big runs to set Thatcher back up in scoring position.

Napier then finished the drive with his second TD of the night at he took it in from 2 yards out to give the Eagles a 20-7 lead.

Safford struck back on its first play in the 4th quarter, as Eduardo Ogaz zipped around the left side 31 yards to paydirt to bring the Bulldogs within 6, at 14-20.

Wren then sealed the deal for Thatcher with a 17-yard scamper and his dive into the endzone gave the Eagles an unsurmountable 27-14 victory and retention of the Open Loop Energy Trophy.

“Coach O’Mera is a great coach and I fully expect to see him again,” Jones said.  

Photo By Stan Bonifacio: Nicholas Puzas (22) holds on to the catch despite a hard hit by Safford’s Jejdrique Chavez.

In other action, the Morenci Wildcats (4-1 region, 6-1 overall) just edged out the Pima Roughriders (2-2 region, 2-3 overall) 21-15 at home on Friday night.

With the win, No. 5 Morenci will host a playoff game against No. 12 Sequoia Pathway on Friday, Nov. 20, starting at 7 p.m.

No. 16 Pima also made the playoffs and will travel to battle No. 1 Benson the same night and time. Benson is undefeated so far this season.