Thatcher remains unbeaten with mastery of Pusch Ridge

Photo By Steve Carter: Brandon Napier (8) and the Thatcher Eagles ran away from the Pusch Ridge Christian Academy Lions 28-14 on Saturday night. Napier led the way with three TDs.

Eagles perched atop 3A South

By Jon Johnson

THATCHER – The Pusch Ridge Christian Academy Lions came into John Mickelson Field on Saturday unbeaten and atop the 3A South, they left with their first loss and tumbled into third. 

Lightning caused the Thatcher versus Pusch Ridge Christian Academy football game to pause for a day at halftime on Friday. The Eagles (2-0 region, 5-0 overall) were up 14-7 at the time of the postponement and finished the job Saturday night and defeated the Lions (1-1 region, 5-1 overall) 28-14.

“I’m exhausted,” Thatcher head coach Dan Jones said after the game. “What a great program. They’re fantastic. Great kids, great everything. It was nice.” 

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

After a couple of big-time breakaway TDs by Thatcher quarterback Brandon Napier gave Thatcher a two-touchdown cushion in the third quarter, the Eagles turned a back-in-forth game into a victory through ball control, defense, and time of possession. 

They did it to such mastery that even though they turned the ball over twice on apparent score-ending drives in the Red Zone that it didn’t cost them anything. It wasn’t smooth sailing the whole game for the Eagles, and I’m not talking about the weather delay.

Steve Carter Photo: Thatcher head coach Dan Jones is fired up on the sideline.

Two mainstays for the team throughout the game were its punishing defense and its dominating offensive line play, which combined with running backs who bounce off first contact to fall forward for at least three yards at a clip, gave Thatcher tremendous short-yardage second and third down situations, which led to big plays. 

One of the team’s biggest players of the game was quarterback/defensive back Brandon Napier, who finished with nearly 200 yards rushing on the night and three touchdowns. He also had several pass deflections on defense.

Napier scored on runs of 67, 35, and 53 yards on quarterback scrambles or runs. 

Photo By Steve Carter: The kicking game is sometimes taken for granted but can be pivotal.

“It’s just my line doing their jobs, all glory to them,” Napier said. “Obviously, we can’t do anything in the backfield without them and I know they trust me. If I don’t see something open the coaches tell me ‘use your athleticism (and) try to create something.’ Luckily tonight, the stars aligned and I was able to just find my way into the end zone.” 

The game started quickly with the up-tempo passing game of PRCA. The Lions quarterback Bubba Mustain was successful early and often, hitting receivers Bryce Jewell, Jack Butler, and Tyler Mustain with frequency.

“They’re very fast and they’re very good on the edges – great hands.,” coach Jones said. “So, our job was to just get it out of his hands as quick as possible. So, we were sending people and making him make choices real fast.”

Bubba converted on a big 3rd and 7 when he hit Butler on a screen that turned into a 23-yard gain. Bubba then extended the play by dancing in the backfield and hitting Butler to set up a 1st and goal. Brysen Barrios finished the drive with the rushing TD and PRCA had the initial lead, 7-0. It wouldn’t last long. 

Photo By Steve Carter: The Eagles came out Friday night by running under the candle burn from local hot air balloonists Az Air Ventures.

Kody Bingham nearly took the ensuing kickoff back to the house but was stopped just short of the 20 after a 74-yard return. 

It only took a few plays after that for Ayden Bingham to take it in from the 4 and the teams were knotted up at 7 apiece. 

Photo By Steve Carter: Thatcher’s defensive backs broke up several deep passes. Cody Jones wrestled the ball away from the Lions’ receiver for the INT on this play.

Thatcher’s defense then asserted itself against PRCA and forced three punts, a missed field goal, and an interception on the Lions’ next five possessions of the first half. The interception by Cody Jones was something to behold. Be sure to check out the highlight video to see it.  

Offensively, Thatcher had a big run from Napier (67 yards) to give them a 14-7 lead, but couldn’t muster anything after that and finished with five straight punts to go into halftime. 

The lightning show then commenced and after consecutive weather delays, athletic directors from both schools agreed to resume the second half on Saturday at 7 p.m. 

The Eagles must have eaten their Wheaties on Saturday morning because they came out with power and purpose.  The Lions’ initial kick went out of bounds and most coaches are happy to take the penalty and start their drives at the 35-yard line. Well, Dan Jones isn’t always like most coaches and instead, he made PRCA kick again. 

This time the kick was deep, and I admit I second-guessed the decision as Kody Bingham snagged it at the Eagles’ own 10. But Bingham sped around the left side and made it to near mid-field. 

Cody Jones then exploded on the next play and stiff-armed a defender on his way to a 53-yard score. The only problem is that holding was called and it was brought back. 

Photo By Steve Carter: Brandon Napier runs for one of his three TDs on the night.

No problem, a few plays later Napier went for his second TD of the game and Thatcher was up 21-7. 

The Lions showed their moxie and came right back when Bubba hit Tyler who juggled and then gathered the pass on 3rd and 9 to go 46 yards for the score to make it 21-14. 

Thatcher came right back with Napier’s third score of the night and its defense forced three straight punts. 

Photo By Steve Carter: Thatcher’s defense asserted its authority.

The offense went into control mode with the lead and had two long, sustaining drives, that however failed to end with points. The Lions’ defense stepped up both times, stopping the Eagles on a 4th and 4 on one drive and then getting a sack/fumble on a designed run. 

“You get those couple touchdowns you start bleeding that thing and make them impatient,” coach Jones said. “That’s kind of what we can do with our big boys up front.”

The Lions continued to move the ball down the field late in the fourth quarter, but their last attempts ended with a sack and incomplete pass. 

Photo By Steve Carter: As per usual with PRCA, the teams joined together at midfield after the game for a joint prayer.

The Eagles are now in a tie with Tucson Sabino (2-0 region, 5-0 overall) for first place in the 3A South. Sabino will visit Pusch Ridge on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m.

“(They’re a) great team; great coached team,” Napier said about PRCA. “I talked to a few of their guys. They’re great athletes and they are going to be another team to see down the road. My team played amazingly. Hopefully, we can keep that up.” 

Thatcher will next travel to face 4A Tucson Sahuaro (2-1) on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m. 

Photo By Steve Carter: Thatcher players celebrate the victory.

In other prep action: 

The Pima Roughriders had their game with Willcox rescheduled to Saturday due to inclement weather on Friday night. The Roughriders (4-1 overall) defeated the Cowboys 27-14. Pima will next host San Carlos on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m.

Friday Night Results

Photo By Steve Carter: Thatcher head coach Dan Jones gives instruction.

In 3A, Tucson Sabino defeated Safford 68-14. The Bulldogs (0-2 region, 1-5 overall) will have a bye and will next host Tucson Palo Verde Magnet on Friday, Oct. 7, starting at 7 p.m. 

In 2A, Morenci remained unbeaten and destroyed Tombstone 56-0 for the Wildcats’ third shutout of the year. Morenci will next host Globe on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m. 

Photo By Steve Carter: Thatcher’s Kody Bingham (34) and Ayden Bingham (26) team up to take down Tyler Mustain.

In 1A, Duncan defeated Baboquivari 44-32. The Wildkats will next host Ray on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m. 

San Manuel defeated Fort Thomas 22-0. The Apaches will next host Valley Union on Friday, Sept. 30, starting at 7 p.m.