Wildcats meet Bobcats in Benson on Friday

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Assistant coach Esai Venagas directs the linemen during a sled pushing drill. The Morenci offensive line was newly assembled, with only four-year starter Austyn Nelson returning and scoring the only touchdown during the season opener in Queen Creek. Unbeaten Morenci is at 1-1 Benson on Friday, Sept. 1.

Morenci returns to 3A with two road triumphs

By Raymundo Frasquillo

BENSON – The Dustin Cluff-coached Benson Bobcats welcome the Morenci Wildcats on Friday, Sept. 1. It will be the 36th meeting of the two teams since 1982 when both were 2A schools.

Morenci left Benson with a 7-42 loss the last time the teams met during the 2021 season and both were unbeaten in region play. This time the teams are both in different classes.

The Bobcats have an 18-17 advantage with a 21-19 (726-662) average score per game or a 2-point margin over Morenci. They also have won four of the most recent pairings by an average score of 26-5 (104-20) or a 21-point margin and have four shutouts to their credit versus one for the Wildcats.

Benson (1-1 overall) has averaged a 38-25 (75-49) score per game or a 13-point margin with a 62-6 win over Maricopa Sequoia Pathway (Aug. 25) and a 13-43 loss to Bisbee (Aug. 18).

The 2-0 Wildcats have totaled 30 points and allowed six points in wins over Queen Creek American Leadership – Ironwood (Aug. 18) and Eagar Round Valley (Aug. 25).

Benson Bobcats (1-1 overall, 0-1 region)

The 2A San Pedro Region Bobcats host Phoenix Shadow Mountain (Sept. 8), visit Tombstone (Sept. 15), Tucson Palo Verde Magnet (Sept. 29), Phoenix Christian (Oct. 6), Tucson Catalina (Oct. 13), and Willcox (Oct. 20) before hosting Tucson Tanque Verde (Oct. 27) to complete their regular season schedule.

Benson is competing in the 2A San Pedro Region with Bisbee, Catalina, Palo Verde Magnet, Tanque Verde, Tombstone, and Willcox.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Newly instated helmet award stickers adorn the helmet of Tristen Sanchez. The senior linemen totaled 14 solo tackles along with four quarterback sacks during two games. He earned region and state defensive player of the year honors last season.

Morenci Wildcats (2-0, 0-0)

Morenci was elevated a class, not because of a spike in enrollment as was the standard, but because of a 30-7 (.822) combined overall record during the most recent three (2020-22) seasons. The Wildcats posted records of 7-2 (2020), 11-3 (2021), and 12-2 (2022).

Playing in the Class 3A level is not new for Morenci as the Wildcats did so from 1953-1981, going 163-131-5 (.545) during the 29 seasons versus 34 different opponents. One state title (1976) and one runner-up finish (1973) were attained.

A decline in enrollment prompted the switch to Class 2A, lasting from 1982-2022 with a 258-177 (.593) overall record versus 58 different opponents during 41 seasons. Five runner-up (1984, 1992, 2012, 2021, 2022) finishes were recorded.

Morenci’s combined overall record for the previous 70 seasons is 421-308-5 (.581).

The cupboard wasn’t left bare for first-year Morenci head coach Rishard Davis by his predecessor, Joseph Garcia (34-14 overall, 13-6 region, 7-3 state playoffs), the 4-year MHS head coach from 2019-22.

On the shelf were the 2A Salt Region and class state defensive player of the year in Tristen Sanchez as well as two-time region offensive POY in Michael Casillas.

Additionally, five other 3-year lettered seniors return in Austyn Nelson, Emilio Roybal, Joseph Seballos, Joshua Smith, and Donovan Vozza; 2-year lettered seniors Andrew Chavez, John Provencio, and Bradley Weiss along with juniors Yeddidia Luputa and Omar Torres; and 1-year lettered senior Javier Hernandez, juniors Xavier Fernandez, Santi Gallegos, Christopher Lopez, Marcus Lucero, Gage Rodriguez, and Johnathon Vasquez, and sophomores Julien Aragon, Dean Chee, Isaiah Cook, Jaymz Guzzo, Derick Lytle, and Richard Rodriguez.

All are in the process of learning a different way of doing things with the change of head coaches as well as competing in a different class.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Rishard Davis points out where the play will be going during a recent practice session. The first-year Morenci head coach guided Santa Cruz to a state title in his previous high school coaching position.

Hailing from Alabama and spending the most recent two years in the Heart of Dixie state, Davis isn’t new to Grand Canyon State football. He guided the Eloy Santa Cruz Dust Devils for seven seasons (2014-2020), posting a combined 56-21 (.727) overall record, 25-7 (.781) in region play, and 12-4 (.750) in the post-season.

“We turned the program around,” he said. “When I got there, we were a team everybody wanted to play for homecoming. We went 3-6 our first year and 9-3 our second year. We had trouble finding teams to play us after our second year.”

The Dust Devils posted records of 11-1 (2016) and 12-1 (2017) during the next two seasons. Four of his last five teams were ranked no lower than fourth, with his final version emerging as the state champion. The 2020 Dust Devils outscored opponents by an average of 45-14 (450-144) per game or a 31-point margin. The lone loss, 14-35 to Casa Grande, was a late pick-up game after both teams had scheduled opponents cancel on the prior day.

“We both had cancellations on a Thursday before the Friday games,” Davis said. “We played on a Saturday with only one day to prepare.”

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Marcus Lucero is greeted by assistant coach Ruben Casillas during a ball-carrying drill. The Morenci junior is one of 24 returning lettermen.

Davis lauded his assistant coaches, Ruben Casillas, Matthew Garcia, Frankie Gonzales, Art Martinez, Jason McEuen, Benji Morales, Josh Sandoval, and Esai Vanegas. Six of the eight adults are products of the Morenci schools, Casillas (Class of 2019), Matthew Garcia (2019), Gonzales (2017), Martinez (1989), Morales (1990), and Vanegas (2017). The other two graduated from neighboring schools, Clifton (Sandoval) and Pima (McEuen). Each of them was hand-picked by his predecessor Joseph Garcia, and four of them played for him while he was either an assistant or head coach at Morenci.

2023 Morenci opponents

The Wildcats follow this week’s non-region contest with the fourth of four consecutive road pairings, in Pima (Sept. 7) before christening the replaced playing surface in Lawson Stadium against the Lakeside Blue Ridge Yellow Jackets (Sept. 15).

Morenci’s region schedule includes hosting Safford (Sept. 29), visiting Tucson Pusch Ridge Christian (Oct. 6), hosting Fountain Hills (Oct. 13) and Tucson Sabino (Oct. 20), and visiting Thatcher (Oct. 27).

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Michael Casillas gained several yards during the scrimmage with Bisbee earlier in August. The senior running back earned region Offensive Player of the Year honors as a sophomore and junior.

The Wildcats are a combined 17-24-1 (.405) versus Round Valley (3-2), Sabino (1-0), Safford (8-20-1), and Thatcher (5-2) as a 3A team plus 47-77 (.379) overall versus Round Valley (1-11), Benson (17-18), Pima (18-8), Blue Ridge (0-1), Safford (2-8), Pusch Ridge (0-1), and Thatcher (9-30) as a 2A team.

Fountain Hills meets Morenci for the first time, as did American Leadership – Ironwood.

2023 Opponents Week 1

Week 1 results were a combined 8-0 for Morenci’s other opponents. The wins were 28-2 over Douglas by American Leadership – Ironwood, 62-6 over Maricopa Sequoia Pathway by Benson, 38-14 over Saint Johns by Blue Ridge, 28-0 over Phoenix Bourgade Catholic by Fountain Hills, 34-25 over Safford by Pima, 19-6 over Sahuaro by Sabino, 24-21 over Show Low by Pusch Ridge, and 40-0 over Crimson by Thatcher.

2023 Opponents Week 0

Morenci’s other opponents went a combined 4-2 during Week 0, with wins by Blue Ridge (60-12 over Kayenta Monument Valley), Safford (35-14 over Payson), Fountain Hills (37-13 over Yuma Kofa), and Sabino (55-28 over Coolidge). Benson and Thatcher both posted losses, 13-43 to Bisbee and 14-35 to Surprise Paradise Honors, respectively. Round Valley, Pima, and Pusch Ridge did not play.

Morenci – 24, Round Valley – 6

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Joseph Seballos showed he can run and pass the ball during the scrimmage in Bisbee. The quarterback is one of 13 seniors on the Morenci roster this season.

It took the Wildcats six quarters to score an offensive touchdown behind a newly assembled line. It came with 5:04 elapsed in the second quarter. Casillas ran in from nine yards out on 2nd-and-goal during Morenci’s third possession of the game. The conversion attempt as well as the next three was no good.

The Elks went three and out, punting on 4th-and-6 but knotted the score on their next possession, getting behind the Morenci secondary for a 62-yard pass play on 2nd-and-10. Seniors Brett Jordan and Ryker Marble connected for the touchdown with 2:50 left in the half. It would be the only score for the hosts. The conversion kick was wide left.

Morenci crossed into the end zone with seven seconds elapsed in the fourth quarter. Sanchez hauled down a Seballos pass for an 18-yard score to break the tie. The Wildcats led 12-6.

A Lytle end zone fumble recovery gave Morenci an 18-6 advantage with five minutes remaining and a Seballos interception allowed a short drive to the end zone on the Wildcats’ next possession. Seballos 2nd-and-18 pick and subsequent 32-yard return put Morenci on the 15. Casillas capped the 4-play drive with a 3-yard run on 2nd-and-goal with 1:43 left to play.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: A midfield block “M” in school colors has been positioned. A few details remain to be finalized before the first game is played on the newly installed playing surface.

Round Valley needed 76 yards, turned the ball over on downs by not advancing and Morenci drew a penalty before taking a knee to end the game.

Offensively, Morenci earned 244 yards with 49 snaps, 215 on 45 carries, and 29 on 2-4 passes.

Individually, Casillas averaged 6.4 (24-153) yards per carry, Roybal 4.5 (2-9) yards, Seballos 3.3 (7-29) yards, Sanchez 3.0 (2-6) yards, and Lucero 1-0. Seballos completed 2-4 passes for 29 yards, Sanchez caught a pass for 18 yards, and Weiss one for 11 yards.

Defensively, two quarterback sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery were posted, in addition to 11 Wildcats totaling 53 tackles (37 solo, 16 assisted).

Sanchez had eight solo tackles and two quarterback sacks, Lytle seven solo tackles and a fumble recovery, Nelson seven tackles (5 solo, 2 assisted), both Casillas (3 solo, 2 assisted) and Fernandez (4 solo, 1 assisted) five tackles, Lucero four (1 solo, 3 assisted) tackles, Provencio two solo tackles, Torres two assisted tackles, Vozza two (1 solo, 1 assisted) tackles, and Seballos one assisted tackle and an interception, and  Roybal one assisted tackle.

Raymundo Frasquillo Photo/Gila Herald: Lines, numbers, and letters were added to the artificial playing surface in Lawson Stadium this week. The first home game is on Sept. 15.

Round Valley Elks

The 3A East Region Round Valley Elks welcomed the unbeaten Morenci Wildcats for their season opener, the 18th meeting of the two teams since 1972.

Round Valley had a 13-4 advantage with a 29-10 (491-164) average score per game or a 19-point margin over Morenci. It also had won 11 of the most recent dozen pairings, had a 10-game active win streak, and posted three shutouts during that 11-year (2011-21) span.

The Brad Baca-coached Elks head to Saint Johns (Aug. 31) and to Thatcher (Sept. 8), host San Tan Valley Poston Butte (Sept. 15), Show Low (Sept. 22), and Payson (Sept. 29), visit Safford (Oct. 6), host Ganado (Oct. 13), and visit Fountain Hills (20) and Lakeside Blue Ridge (Oct. 27) to complete their regular season schedule.

Round Valley is competing in the 3A East Region along with Blue Ridge, Fountain Hills, Payson, and Show Low.

Morenci – 6, ALA Ironwood – 0

It is not unusual for players to dream of being the one making the deciding play. That dream came true for senior four-year starter Austyn Nelson. The lineman recovered a fumble and advanced into the end zone from four yards out 10 seconds into the fourth quarter. It was his first high school touchdown and the only score of the game.

“Our defense played good,” Davis said.

Three quarterback sacks, two interceptions, and two fumble recoveries were posted along with 11 different Wildcats combining for 40 (38 solo, 2 assisted) tackles.

Nelson totaled four tackles (3 solo, 1 assisted); Sanchez sacked the quarterback twice and recorded six solo tackles; Vozza had one QB sack and four solo tackles; Lopez recovered a fumble and made an interception; Lytle made an interception and had nine (8 solo, 1 assisted) tackles; and both Casillas and Fernandez made four solo tackles.

Offensively, the Wildcats advanced the ball at a 37 percent (209-567) rate, the total yards moved versus the yard started from by rushing, passing, or penalty. Morenci netted 179 yards, 156 on 47 carries, and 23 on two pass receptions.

Roybal averaged 6.5 (4-26) yards per carry, Casillas 3.9 (25-98) yards, Vozza 2.4 (8-19) yards, and Seballos 1.4 (10-14). Seballos completed 2-7 passes for 23 yards with two interceptions and Provencio hauled down both passes for an 11.5 average per catch.

“Our offense isn’t quite there yet, that’s why you play more than one game,” Davis added.