October 26, 2018
LEADING IN: Heading into the 2018 season, there was already a natural buzz in the air as this would mark the 50th straight year the two rivals would play one another. Flag High was leading the series by a slim 26-23 margin and were looking to build on recent successes (they went 6-4 in '17, 5-5 the two years before that); Bob Castillo and Paul Wolf were back as co-coaches, Henry Tagle was back at quarterback, and their roster enjoyed the experience that comes from having seventeen seniors. Coconino, on the other hand, was looking to change things up, and they did so in two big ways; Mike Moran (who led the Boys Basketball Panthers from mediocrity to the Grand Canyon Region title in one season) took over the football program, and FUSD finally agreed to Coconino's longstanding request to move the annual Rivalry Game to Cromer Stadium, the first time the event would be held anywhere other than the NAU Skydome in over forty years.
Excitement in Pantherland was felt from the opening gun as the Cats raced out to a 21-point lead in their first quarter of the season against Thunderbird, shocking pretty much everyone in the state (a regional writers' preseason poll had Coconino ranked last in the GCR). They held on to beat the Chiefs, and using a potent running attack and solid defense, Coconino stormed through Carl Hayden and Cortez in Phoenix before their first heat-check game against Mingus; just two years before, Mingus had handed Coconino their most humiliating loss ever (78-6), but by taking advantage of Marauders' mistakes on and off the field, they beat Mingus in a thrilling 42-40 win. Despite losing to Bradshaw Mountain the next week, they were ranked #7 when the AIA debuted their power rankings at midseason. Losses to Prescott and Cactus in the second half cooled their jets somewhat, but these weren't the sort of losses we'd seen from the Panthers in recent years; every game was competitive, the Panthers had their chances to win every time they took the field, and by the final week they were sitting at 6-3, ranked #15, enjoying their best season in a decade and a half, breaking school records left and right (their offense was churning out 300 yards a game on the ground and scoring 32.8 ppg), and bringing enthusiasm back to the East Side. Every phase of the game was new and improved. They had a stable of potent runningbacks (four Panthers ran for over 300 yards, led by sophomore Zach Bennett with 1,210), a core of tough linebackers (Dawson Buckley played all season with reckless abandon), and consistent special teams (Jesus Trejo broke school records for PATs in a game and in a season).
While Coconino was enjoying success for the first time in years, Flag High stumbled out of the blocks and found themselves at 2-3 by midseason; that record was misleading, because each of those losses was by a touchdown or less against some of the top competition in the state (Glendale, Tempe, and Prescott all spent time in the 4A top ten), just one play in each game would have changed the outcome, and we very well could have seen the Eagles sitting at 5-0 halfway through the year. At times their passing game was spot on, with Tagle making use of deep threats Xavier Sheffield and brother Ryan Tagle, but their bread-and-butter was their running game, and with senior Josh Morrow using his speed (447 yards) and sophomore Luis Jaramillo bulldozing through the line (1,135 yards), they often looked unstoppable. Injuries, however, started to take their toll, and a loss to Bradshaw Mountain in Week Six started to take the wind out of their sails. They soundly came back and beat Lee Williams the next week, but couldn't muster much against Seton Catholic. They narrowly lost to Mingus in Week Nine, giving the Eagle faithful something to hang their hats on going into their game against Coconino.
All the talk going into Rivalry Week was in Coconino's favor, and between the Big Game being played on their campus, the potential for the Panthers to make the playoffs, the wonder over how the administrators at Coconino would get the logistics straight for the game (visitors' bleachers, parking, etc.), the school honoring the 1968 championship team at the game, Coconino's Class of 1988 using the game as the focus for their reunion, and simply being the fiftieth game in the series, it may have been overlooked that it takes two to make a rivalry. The Eagles were looking to make the game a saving grace for a season marred by injuries and miscues, and anyone who pays attention to this rivalry knows that, as long as a team can dress eleven players, anything can happen. Didn't we see this scenario just the year before, but in reverse, where it was the Eagles looking for their seventh win of the season, only to be upended by the struggling Panthers?
THE GAME: The Eagles sought senior experience for tonight's season finale, and in looking for a replacement for the injured Tagle at quarterback, Castillo and Wolf went with Josh Morrow instead of junior Joe Weidinger. Things could not have started out better for them; after kicking off, Flag High seniors Colton Bond forced a fumble and Max Marcilla recovered, giving the ball to the Eagles on the Coconino 29. They were able to cash it in with a Jaramillo plunge into the end zone, and after the extra point by Oscar Castruita, the underdog was on top, 7-0, just four minutes into the game.
Things didn't start so great for the Panthers the second time they got the ball, either; a holding penalty pushed them back to a 1st-&-20 on their own 10. This is where their offense started to click; runs by Bailey McCauslin, Buckley, and Bennett got the Panthers a first down, but then quarterback Ty Furr called his own number, burst through the middle of the line and outraced the linebackers and secondary for a 64-yard scoring romp. Trejo's extra-point tied the game at 7.
The Eagles had a nice-looking drive after the ensuing kickoff, but it petered out when they went for it on fourth down on the Panther 43; Coconino couldn't do much with it when they got the ball back, but when they lined up to punt on 4th-& 17, Bennett (who always has the green light to take off when in punt formation and has made big plays this way all year) passed to Kade Owen on a play that lost a yard. Flag High had a three-and-out and punted, setting the Panthers back to their own 24, where they set out on a 15-play (19 if you count the penalties) odyssey that gobbled up most of the second quarter and set them up on the Flag High 9, setting up a Trejo 26-yard field goal. The teams exchanged punts to end the half with the Panthers up, 10-7.
Flag High got their offense moving to start the third quarter as Jaramillo started gaining big chunks on the ground, a ten-yarder to start the drive and then 11 yards to end it, getting them to the Coconino 3, but they couldn't push it through as Morrow was sacked by Buckley on third down, knocking them back to the 15, so they kicked a field goal. Castruita's 32-yarder knotted up the game at 10 midway through the third quarter.
Late in the season, as teams (especially Cactus) started to zero in on Bennett to negate his speed off tackle, Coconino's running game shifted gears and became more reliant on Buckley becoming a battering ram, literally mashing himself into the line over and over again for big gains (he gained 159 yards in that Cactus game). At this point against Flag High, they started to call on Buckley more and more, and while Furr and Bennett continued to carry the rock to keep the defense honest, it was Buckley's relentless power that moved the ball, eating up the clock; in a drive that devoured most of the rest of the third quarter and ended with Eli Herrera's 1-yard scoring blast, Buckley carried the ball six times for 67 yards. The Panthers were up, 17-10 with just over a quarter left in the game, the Eagles still had plenty of time and were right where an underdog wants to be (in the game until the end and with chances to make the big play), but Coconino had the momentum.
The Eagles started moving the ball again, and a roughing-the-passer call set them up on the Panther side to start the fourth quarter. They took a chance on fourth-and-four on the Panther 45 and called Colby Hollaway's number, but Cayden Fordyce met him right at the 41, and when the chains were brought out, it showed Fordyce stopped Hollaway just a few links short of a first down. Flag High's D started to stiffen at this point, forcing Coconino fumbles on first and second down, unable to recover either, but showing the Panthers they were backing down. They forced them into fourth down and stopped Bennett for a five-yard loss, giving the Eagles great field position at midfield. Unfortunately, they fared no better and, playing the odds that their defense would get them the ball back, they chose to punt and pin the Panthers back deep in their end, which is what they did as Kyle Casados called for a fair catch on their 17.
Coconino did what they did the entire game and all season, simply run the ball using a plethora of runningbacks and moving the chains. Furr, L.B. Billups and Buckley all got in on the act, but it was McCauslin gashing the D for 36 yards and DeHerrera's 19-yard run that brought them again to the red zone, where DeHerrera again cashed in from the 1. The Panthers finally put some distance between them and the Eagles, 24-10, with three minutes left in the game.
We'd seen plenty of miracles in this series, and the Eagles set out to make one happen with Morrow dishing it off to Jaramillo to get the ball to midfield, and again to move it to the Panther 37, but that was as far as they could go; the next reception was fumbled and recovered by Coconino's Jordan Lucero with just over a minute left in the game.
For his efforts on defense, Michael Becenti, Jr. won the 2018 John Ply Memorial Award, presented to him by Ply's grandsons, Michael and Daniel Langston. Dawson Buckley gained 139 yards, had 3.5 sacks and was awarded the Bill Epperson Award, handed to him by the old man himself.
Coconino 24, Flagstaff 10
AT THE END OF THE DAY: No one associated with Coconino football got a wink of sleep that night, as the AIA posted their brackets the next morning. They finished the regular season ranked #14, but with three region champions beneath them in the rankings, they did not qualify for the playoffs. It's been since 2007 since either team has made the postseason, but with youth football making a comeback on the mountain and both schools enjoying success on the freshman and JV levels, the future looks bright.
There have been writers and media figures in the past who have left the rivalry for dead, and they did so for several reasons, from the entrance of a third high school to changing values to poor attendance to a decline of interest in high school sports, but with gyms standing-room-only for rivalry games in volleyball and basketball, such claims were always erroneous. An estimated 4,000 fans packed Cromer Stadium for tonight's action, and yes, it did get cold (big surprise, it gets cold in Flagstaff in late October when the sun goes down), but for the most part, the game was a success, and if that success leads to the football rivalry becoming a home-and-home series, it may be the shot in the arm that gets the city to embrace it as fully as it did forty years ago. We may never see 10,000 fans pack the Dome like we did in the 1980s, but if we can have competitive games against two teams who understand the relationship they have with one another, if we have the local media supporting the teams and finding opportunities to cover them, it will prove those wrong who wrote the rivalry off years ago, that it never died, but has always been an essential and vibrant part of our community.
FHS: Luis Jaramillo 3 run (Oscar Castruita XP)
CHS: Ty Furr 64 run (Jesus Trejo XP)
CHS: Trejo 26 FG
FHS: Castruita 32 FG
CHS: Eli DeHerrera 1 run (Trejo XP)
CHS: DeHerrera 1 run (Trejo XP)
Click here to listen to KAFF Country Legends' broadcast of the game. Dave Zorn does play-by-play, Reggie Eccleston does color commentary, Creighton Sullivan is on the field, and in-booth guests include David Winsley, Ceaser Polk, Bubba Ganter, and Dawson Buckley.
Original Daily Sun story written by Lance Hartzler and Mike Hartman; October 27, 2018
Statistics compiled by Bob Oberhardt and Dave Merrell
Images from various sources, including Karl Mullings, Arizona Daily Sun, and Flagcoco
Last updated: November 3, 2018