Thatcher opens season with big win over Sahuarita

Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: The Thatcher Eagles ran all over the Sahuarita Mustangs on Friday night en route to a 53-7 opening night win.

By Jon Johnson

THATCHER – The Thatcher Eagles opened its football season Friday night by scoring six touchdowns in the first half on its way to blowing out the visiting region rival Sahuarita Mustangs, 53-7. 

The Mustangs couldn’t stop the Eagles on the ground or in the air and weren’t able to muster much of an offensive performance save for one series against bench players at the end of the game. 

“Hats off to Sahuarita,” Thatcher head coach Dan Jones said. “I know they were in quarantine for most of their preseason. But they chose to make the game and come out here anyway, so I want to give a big thank you to them. That was a class move.”

The Eagles broke the ice on just their third play from scrimmage when quarterback Wyatt Larson launched a beautifully thrown ball that landed right in receiver Brandon Napier’s breadbasket. Napier took it the last five yards for a 40-yard TD to put Thatcher up 6-0. The extra point attempt was blocked.

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

Larson went on to throw three touchdown passes in the first half and score a 2-point conversion. Larson didn’t play in the second half as Jones rested his starters and got some of his younger players valuable game experience.

“I think we played alright,” Larson said. “There’s always room for improvement, but it is a good first step on our road . . . Overall, I think we did alright.”  

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Players hold up a pink “Laugh Like Maci” shirt during a moment of silence for Maci Reed, 4, who was lost in a flash flood in July.

Thatcher’s defense matched the offensive intensity and held Sahuarita to two punts on two possessions in the second quarter. That allowed the Eagles’ offense to flourish, and they soon scored again on a Joshua Mangum 3-yard run to go up 13-0.

Mangum was the workhorse for Thatcher on the night, which debuted a hurry-up offense that is signaled from the sideline and the team ran plays without retreating to a huddle.

“We’ve put in a new offense and we’ve been working really hard on it,” Jones said. “We’re trying to unleash Wyatt’s arm a little bit . . . We kind of want to not be so run-based. We’re trying to be both.” 

Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Thatcher’s Ayden Bingham prepares to lower the boom onto Sahuarita’s Aaron Bell.

The form of play kept the Mustangs on their heels as they reeled from one big offensive play to the next. A well-balanced offense could be trouble for any team that battles the green machine.

“I really like our offense,” Larson said. “It’s good for us. We have a lot of athletes we’re able to use multiple ways . . . I enjoy throwing the ball, (and) I enjoy watching my running backs score. So, it was a good game overall.”   

The Eagles’ defense started to really heat up in the second quarter, which saw Sahuarita turn the ball over four times; three on interceptions and one on a fumble. If not for a roughing the passer penalty and illegal contact to the receiver, the Eagles would have had a 52-yard pick-six INT by Ayden Bingham. Earlier in the quarter, Bingham returned another interception 26 yards to the house to help put Thatcher up 28-0. 

Larson hit Napier in the flat and Napier did the rest, going 41 yards for the TD, and also hooked up with Slade Shupe for a 15-yard score. Shupe also had an interception in the quarter. 

Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: A Thatcher defender tips Sahuarita quarterback Alex Valdez’s pass.

Mangum snagged the other interception, and Nicholas Puzas forced and recovered a fumble for the last turnover. 

Thatcher had the ball on the 2-yard line with time left in the half but let the quarter expire without trying to score so the running clock wouldn’t go into effect. Coach Jones said he did so to get his younger players some more game time. 

That didn’t last long, as the reserve unit marched down the field on its first possession of the second half and capped off the possession with a 5-yard TD run by Christian Carter. 

Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Thatcher had good results in the air and on the ground for a well-balanced offense.

The running clock shortened the rest of the game, but Sahuarita never stopped trying and finally got on the board when Mustangs’ quarterback Alex Valdez connected with Joseph Loveall for a 40-yard TD pass and catch. However, at that time the score was 47-7 with the game nearly over. 

Thatcher never let up either, and on the ensuing kickoff, Shupe took the kick right up the middle, found a seam, and went 93 yards untouched to pay dirt for the final score of the game making it 53-7. 

“It was a pretty far kick,” Shupe said. “I was expecting it shorter, so I had to back up but I was able to catch it. I took off (and) I just read the holes right, I guess. I just have good coaching. I took off and I had enough energy to make it down. It was just a good last minute for us.”

Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Slade Shupe returns a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown.

The running clock ran out before Thatcher could kick off again and the two teams congratulated each other and parted ways. 

“It’s great to be part of Eagle Nation,” Jones said. “These guys are fantastic; families are great. It’s just a great place to play football. 

Thatcher will next travel to Florence to take on the Gophers (0-1), which lost their season opener to the Mohave Firebirds, 36-55. The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 3. 

Jon Johnson Photo/Gila Herald: Thatcher cheerleaders pump up the crowd.

In other prep football action: 

The Safford Bulldogs (1-0) prevailed in overtime against the Blue Ridge Yellowjackets, 20-19. The Bulldogs will next host the Pima Roughriders (1-0) on Friday, Sept. 3, starting at 7 p.m. 

In 2A action, the aforementioned Roughriders went on the road and defeated the Miami Vandals 56-14. The Roughriders will travel to face Safford (1-0) on Friday, Sept. 3, starting at 7 p.m. 

The Morenci Wildcats (1-0) opened their season with a win over the visiting Sequoia Pathway Pumas, 45-12. The Wildcats will next travel up north to face the Round Valley Elks (1-0) on Friday, Sept. 3, starting at 7 p.m. 

In 1A action, the Duncan Wildkats (0-1 region, 1-1 overall) defeated the Superior Panthers on the road, 26-0. The Wildkats will next travel to face the San Manuel Miners on Friday, Sept. 3, starting at 7 p.m.