Valley Christian hands Safford its first loss of the season

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Valley Christian quarterback Hunter Heeringa (1) attempts to break the tackle of Safford’s Tanner Emery (72). Heeringa threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-27 victory over Safford.

By Jon Johnson

Jon Johnson Video/Gila Herald

SAFFORD – The No. 1-ranked Valley Christian Trojans (4-0 conference, 6-0 overall) put a damper on homecoming festivities for the No. 5-ranked Safford Bulldogs (1-0 region, 5-1 overall) on Friday, besting the home team in a tough battle, 48-27. 

The game appeared closer than the score would seem to show, and the Bulldogs led the Trojans in the second quarter and, if not for some bad bounces, could have led in the second half as well. 

But every time the Bulldogs went up or inched closer, Valley’s high-tempo offense and its swarming defense responded. 

The Trojans struck first on its opening possession when on 3rd and 7 Austyn Gerard got behind the defense. Valley running back Kaden Majercak got just enough of a rushing Christian Smith to buy time for Valley quarterback Hunter Heeringa. Heeringa slid to his left in the pocket and lofted a pass to Gerard, who gathered it at the 25 and took it the rest of the way to the house for an opening 63-yard touchdown. Dominic Zvada’s extra-point attempt was true and the Trojans had an early 7-0 lead. Heeringa went on to have a big night throwing for Valley, going 18-28 for 254 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. 

After Safford’s first possession ended with a punt, the Bulldogs’ defense showed their mettle. Valley attempted a screen pass on 3rd and 9, but Chris Shatto shut it down with assistance from Matthew Tavizon to force a 4th and 17 from the Trojans’ own 14-yard line. 

A gutsy fake punt attempt failed as Hunter Horstman couldn’t hold on to a pass by punter Zvada, and Safford took over deep in Trojans’ territory. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Valley Christian’s Austyn Gerard (7) catches a pass for a 63-yard TD to open the scoring.

Safford then capitalized on the turnover two plays later when Christian Smith (who was crowned Homecoming King at halftime) weaved his way in and out of defenders on his way to a 9-yard TD. The extra-point attempt missed, however, and Valley still led 7-6. 

That would soon change, however, as another big play by the Bulldogs set up 4th and 25 from the Trojans’ 15 after Tavizon sacked Heeringa for a 10-yard loss. This time, Valley punted the ball away. 

Safford soon faced its own 4th and 12 late in the first quarter, but Jojo Ruelas threaded the needle to Fernando Gonzales for 13 yards to move the sticks. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford quarterback Jojo Ruelas attempts a pass while being draped by the Valley Christian defense.

The Safford drive was fruitful as Damian “Monster” Rios ran it in from 9-yards. The extra point was good and Safford took the lead, 13-7. 

To be a good team, one needs to excel in either running or passing the football. To be a great team, one needs to do both. Well, on this night, Valley did both. 

Valley Christian running back Kaden Majercak punished the Bulldogs all night – especially on a few big runs, starting in the second quarter with his team down a score. 

Majercak took a handoff from Heeringa and looked to be stopped in the backfield as Safford’s Garrett Pritchard had a clean shot at him. However, Majercak brushed off the tackle attempt and then broke free around the left side. Majercak raced down the sidelines 65 yards before Shatto ran him down with a touchdown-saving tackle at the 5-yard line. Majercak finished the night averaging 10.6 yards per carry with 20 rushes for 212 yards and two touchdowns.  

The Safford goal-line defense did its job on that possession, however, and held Valley to a field goal attempt. Zvada’s 22-yarder was good, but Safford still led, 13-10. Zvada has a huge leg (he was observed in warm-ups at halftime nailing 40-plus yarders and just coming up short on a 50-plus yard attempt) and he put every single of his eight kickoffs into the end zone. In high school football, if the kickoff goes into the end zone players cannot bring it out and it is automatically placed at the 20-yard line. So, the Bulldogs didn’t have the opportunity to return any of the kickoffs since they all went into – or out of as the case was multiple times – the end zone.  

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, starting deep in its own territory due to the kickoffs or punts ended in three separate defensive scores for the Trojans, including two safeties. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Valley Christian’s Kaden Majercak (26) breaks a tackle attempt by Jojo Ruelas (2).

On the first play of Safford’s ensuing possession following Zvada’s field goal, Ruelas dropped back to pass with Valley’s Ben Yarbrough pressuring. Cade Accomazzo then leaped and snagged the Ruelas offering and returned the INT to the house 27 yards for the pick 6 to put the Trojans up 17-13. 

The tough times continued for Safford later in the second quarter when the snap sailed over punter Nephi Fox’s head and he was tackled in the end zone for a safety, adding two points to Valley’s score, 19-13. 

The Trojans then received the free-kick from the Bulldogs and sped up their high-speed offense even more so. A few plays later, and Valley was already in the Red Zone. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Valley Christian QB Hunter Heeringa throws for a completion.

The drive finished with a 16-yard TD pass from Heeringa to Gerard for his second TD of the night. Gerard finished with five catches for 87 yards for an average of 17.4 yards per catch. 

With very little time left on the clock and Valley stacking the box, it didn’t appear that Safford had any shot at scoring before halftime. But Smith didn’t buy into that and burst a 43-yard run right up the gut to put the Bulldogs into Trojan’s territory. 

On 4th and 5 from the 33, Ruelas – who was constantly hounded all night by the Trojans’ defensive line – somehow managed to launch a deep pass that was gathered by Shatto at the 9 to give the Bulldogs 1st and goal. However, halftime was only seconds away, and without a timeout, Safford hurried up to the line and Ruelas expertly clocked the ball after making sure his line was set with just two seconds to spare until the half and one last shot. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford’s Jojo Ruelas looks for an open receiver.

Ruelas then zipped a pass over the middle to Ki Turner on second down, but Turner couldn’t quite hang on and the Trojans dodged a bullet and entered the break doubling up the Bulldogs 26-13. 

After halftime, Safford continued the momentum from the end of the second quarter with what should have been the offensive play of the game. 

With Ruelas running for his life from the defensive line, he spotted Gonzales and hit the receiver for first-down yardage. Gonzales wasn’t satisfied with just that, however, and he raced down the sideline and then made an extraordinary cut forcing two Trojans defenders to run into each other. Gonzales then turned back down the sideline and raced toward the end zone and was hit at about the 5 by Isaak Kubat. Gonzales dove into the end zone and stretched the ball easily over the line for the touchdown. However, the referees decided to mark him just short of the goal line for some reason, and what should have been an 80-yard TD ended up as a 79-1/2 yard run. Smith punched it in on the next play and Safford was within striking distance down only one score, 26-20. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, that would be as close as they would get for the rest of the night. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Christian Smith and Tatym Hawkins were named Homecoming King and Queen.

Just as in the first half, the Trojans rallied with offensive and defensive scores. 

First, another big run by Majercak led to a Heeringa to Caleb Lewis 17-yard TD pass, and then the Bulldogs had issues on Special Teams again as a high snap led to Fox’s punt being blocked out of the end zone for the second safety on the night. 

On the Trojans’ ensuing possession, Heeringa tossed a pass under duress that was corralled by Adam Bradford for a 37-yard completion to the 3-yard line. Bradford finished with 7 catches for 108 yards. Majercak finished the drive with a 3-yard TD run to put Valley up 41-20. 

The Bulldogs and Trojans then exchanged interceptions, with Valley’s Justin Erikson snagging a Ruelas offering and giving the Trojans excellent field position at the Bulldogs’ 30. However, a few plays later, Smith stretched out at the goal line to intercept Heeringa and returned it back to the 31 to end the third quarter.

In the fourth, Herringa hooked up with Bradford again, putting them in scoring position. However, a miscue of a pitch to Majercak knocked the Trojans back, and a 54-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Gonzales, who gathered the blocked ball and took it back to the 3-yard line. Smith finished it off from there and took it in to keep Safford’s hopes up down 41-27. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Robert White, Safford’s 2019 Homecoming King and current Army National Guardsman, was delivered to the field by AirEvac. White handed over the game ball to start the contest.

There was no stopping the Trojans, however, and Valley topped off its night after another Herringa to Bradford connection for 27 yards brought them to the Bulldogs’ 23-yard line. 

Majercak then put the nail in the coffin with a short run around the right side to pay dirt and Valley left the Gila Valley with its unbeaten record intact with the 48-27 victory. 

Safford will hope to bounce back on the road on Friday, Oct. 8, as they travel to face (Tucson) Pueblo (1-2 conference, 2-2 overall), starting at 7 p.m. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford’s Damian Rios tackles Valley Christian’s, Austyn Gerard.

In other local prep action: 

In 3A, the Thatcher Eagles (2-0 region, 5-1 overall) bounced back from their tough loss last week against 5A Desert View (6-28) by defeating (Tucson) Empire 55-17 in a game that wasn’t even that close. 

Thatcher will next travel to face San Tan Foothills (0-1 region, 1-5 overall) on Friday, Oct. 8, starting at 7 p.m. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford’s Damian Rios dislodges the ball from Valley Christian’s Adam Bradford.

In 2A, the Morenci Wildcats (1-0 region, 5-1 overall) won their fourth game in a row with a 46-7 thumping of Bisbee (0-1 region, 3-3 overall). Morenci will next travel to face Tombstone (0-1 region, 2-3 overall) on Friday, Oct. 8, starting at 7 p.m. 

The Pima Roughriders (1-0 region, 4-2 overall) defeated Benson (0-1 region, 3-2 overall) on Thursday night, 14-7. Pima will next host unbeaten Willcox (1-0 region, 6-0 overall) on Friday, Oct. 8, starting at 7 p.m. in an important region matchup. 

Photo By Stan Bonifacio Sports Photography: Safford’s Christian Smith (28) attempts to avoid being tackled.

In 1A, the Fort Thomas Apaches (1-3 region, 1-4 overall) lost their fourth straight, falling to Valley Union (1-2 region, 3-3 overall) 26-56. The Fort will have a tough task as they look to turn things around on the road this week as they visit St. David (5-0 region, 6-1 overall) on Thursday, Oct. 7, starting at 7 p.m. 

The Duncan Wildkats (2-3 region, 3-3 overall) defeated Cibecue (0-3 region, 0-4 overall) 50-16 on Saturday. The Wildkats will next travel to take on Ray (2-2 region, 2-4 overall) on Friday, Oct. 8, starting at 7 p.m.