Photo By Raymundo Frasquillo: Thatcher’s Jack Kortsen helms the offense. Thatcher opened its season with a 15-0 victory over Morenci.
By Jon Johnson
The Thatcher Eagles opened their season with a 15-0 victory over the Morenci Wildcats on Friday night, that much is without a doubt. But was the close-fought victory a sign of trouble to come, or simply beginning of the season jitters?
“We have a lot of things to work on,” said first-year Thatcher head coach Ramon Morales.
The coaches and players would be the first to say the win wasn’t pretty, but it was indeed a win. Thatcher committed five turnovers in the game (three fumbles and two on downs) compared to just two for Morenci and had two other fumbles that they recovered. In speaking with the players after the game, it appeared they are keenly aware that a repeat effort against Queen Creek American Leadership Academy this Friday would likely not end with a win for the Eagles.
“We didn’t play the game that we wanted to play, obviously,” Morales said. “So, there’s work to be done. (We’ll) go back to the drawing board and keep chugging away and see what happens.”
What worked well for Thatcher was its bread and butter – a strong offensive line that opened holes for their stable of running backs, led by Riley Morris and Quinton Turley, who also had both touchdowns on the night.
“They’re Thatcher,” said Morenci head coach David Gallegos. “And Thatcher does what they do. You have to tip your hat to them. They’re back-to-back state champs and there’s a reason for that.”
While quarterback Jack Kortsen showed flashes of potential – escaping what appeared to be a sure sack and turnover on fourth down to convert on one play, setting up a nice screen play to Trevan Clark and hitting Trace Goodman down the sidelines on another – the multiple fumbles between himself and his running backs and not being able to get the ball to his big, Utah State-bound tight end Cole Motes showed he is still a work in progress. Up until the fourth quarter, Kortsen had just one completion for 7 yards, but his screen pass to Clark netted 25 yards after the catch and the strike to Goodman padded his numbers to an unofficial 3-7 for 45 yards on the Gila Herald’s scorebook.
On the other side of the ball, Morenci came out strong in the first half, playing Thatcher to the stalemate but possibly could have been up 14 themselves if not for their own mistakes and the Eagles’ goal-line defense, which has been tested in the past in big-time games and has excelled.
Morenci’s running back Isaac Pacheco had a good night on the ground, peeling off two big runs starting with a 35-yard scamper on third and 8 on the opening drive. However, that drive stalled and the Wildcats had to punt.
They got the ball right back when Riley Morris lost the handle on Thatcher’s first offensive play but turned it back over two plays later when Morris redeemed himself from his linebacker position by leveling Morenci quarterback Brandon Blair, who didn’t realize there wasn’t a running back to catch his pitch. After several Eagles ran past the football perhaps attempting to scoop it up and head the other way to paydirt, Morris then recovered the fumble as well.
After Thatcher’s drive stalled, Morenci got it back going on the ground and in the air as Blair hit Chris Deck for a nice 7-yard pickup and then 5’6” Mark Roybal nabbed one out of the sky. Pacheco then scooted around the left edge for 32 yards to the Eagles’ 10-yard line and Morenci was in business at the end of the first quarter with a first and goal.
The Wildcats got five more yards on an offsides penalty and had four shots at punching it in. But a combination of missed play calls and the bend-but-don’t-break Thatcher defense kept them out of the end zone, and the teams ultimately went into halftime without either one breaking the goal line for the 2018 season.
The Eagles came out with a vengeance in the second half and started with a 22-yard kickoff return by Morris. That was followed on the same drive by a nice 17-yard scramble by Kortsen and a big 17-yard pickup by Bretton Dodge.
Morris finished the drive and opened the scoring on the season for Thatcher as lineman Quinten Mack and Gage Bryce opened up a lane and Morris zipped 8 yards straight up the gut for the score. Connor Russell added the extra point and Thatcher was up 7-0.
Morenci couldn’t duplicate its first-half success, and, after a three-and-out, Thatcher was once again knocking on the door after Morris peeled off tough runs of 13 and 10 yards. The Eagles started taking land in chunks and the Wildcats appeared helpless to stop them as the big fullback dragged would-be tacklers yards after contact.
Quinton Turley finished the drive with a classic Turley play, extending the run to the outside and then somehow twisting and turning over the defensive players to get into the end zone. A busted extra-point attempt instead saw Seth Lunt hit Motes for the 2-point conversion, ending the scoring on the night with Thatcher up, 15-0.
“We felt like we didn’t play very well in that first half, and give Morenci credit, they came out and got after us, but we just made too many mistakes – fumbled the ball too many times and that sort of thing,” Morales said. “It was still zero, zero in spite of how poorly we played in that first half, so, that’s what I told them.”
The scoring was partially set up by Thatcher’s uptempo offense, which forced Morenci to take a timeout to catch their breath. It was evident that the Eagles were well-coached and had put in the work to move the offense so quickly on those two drives.
“I think it goes back to conditioning,” Gallegos said. “We had a good game plan coming in, and I thought we did really well in the first half. We pushed the ball up the field. We had our opportunities to score, (but) just couldn’t get it across that pylon.”
Gallegos said his team would use the game as an opportunity to get better and to learn from their mistakes to possibly even the score down the road.
“We’ll go on to Santa Rita next week and then we’ll keep going and going and keep plugging and hopefully, you know, in the future, we’ll see them in the playoffs.”
Morales said Thatcher would start preparing for its showdown Friday at Queen Creek American Leadership as well.
“We’ll hopefully clean some things up for next week and, you know, just get after it,” Morales said. “There’s a lot of talent on this team. It’s just a matter of cleaning some things up and letting our talent shine, and, hopefully, that’s what will happen.”
To view a photo album of more pictures from the game click here.
In other prep action, the Snowflake Lobos spoiled first-year Safford head coach Eric Hjalmarson’s return up north by beating the Bulldogs 22-7. Safford will next host Wickenburg on Friday, Aug. 31.
The Fort Thomas Apaches continued their winning ways from last season and demolished the Boboquivari Warriors, 68-16. Fort Thomas will travel to play the Salome Frogs on Friday, Aug. 24.
The Duncan Wildkats fell to the Ray Bearcats, 24-0. Duncan will next play the Fredonia Lynx on Friday, Aug. 24 at 10 a.m. at Northern Arizona University.
The Pima Roughriders will open its season Friday, Aug. 24, by hosting the Arizona Lutheran Coyotes. The Gila Herald will be there to cover the game and will have a highlight video the following day.