Panthers Win Defensive War

NAU Skydome

November 1, 2019

 

LEADING IN:  The city of Flagstaff hadn’t seen a high school football playoff game since 2007, and the buzz going into the ’19 season was, Will this be the year?  In the twelve years in between, the Eagles, Panthers, and Sinagua Mustangs all suffered through winless seasons.  Coconino suffered through their 21-game losing streak.  Flag High experienced their first 0-for-the-season since 1968.  Sinagua was demoted to middle school status, ending two decades of Mustang Football.  The two remaining programs had their highs (Flag High went 8-2 in 2012, Coconino was 7-3 in 2018) and their lows (the Eagles were 2-8 in 2014, the Panthers went 11-39 from 2013-2017). 

Part of the positive buzz had to do with both schools having new head coaches.  Todd Hanley took over the Flag High program and not only brought a wealth of football experience with him (including stints at Florence and Seton Catholic High Schools and Phoenix College) as well as life experience (over twenty years with the Phoenix Police Department and a founder of Sun Devil Family Charities).  While Michael Lapsley wasn’t new to football in Flagstaff (he installed the offense that made the Panthers a winner in 2018; before that, he was instrumental in making local youth football so successful), this was his first shot running a high school program from top to bottom. 

There were also plenty of familiar faces on both rosters.  Joe Weidinger went to camps all summer and was ready to start at quarterback for the Eagles; he had wideouts Ryan Tagle and Jace Wetzel at his disposal, as well as thousand-yard beast Luis Jaramillo to hand off to.  Coconino came in loaded at the runningback position, as Bo Gomez, Eli DeHerrera, Bailey McCauslin, and especially Zach Bennett looked to pick up where they left off in 2018.

The Panthers were coming off their most productive season in their 52-year history in terms of rushing offense; they averaged 300 yards on the ground in ’18.  The Eagles lost several close games to playoff teams like Glendale, Tempe, Prescott, and Mingus; their 3-7 record was misleading in light of how well they played against tough competition.  There was plenty to get excited about.

In the first two weeks of the season, both teams rode that excitement to big wins.    The Eagles got off to a great start by avenging their loss to the Cardinals with a sound 35-14 win in the opener, then jumped all over the Dysart Demons to the tune of a 48-17 score.  Both game were punctuated with Wetzel returning kickoffs back for touchdowns.  The Panthers made light work of Thunderbird on the road and Carl Hayden at home, with Bennett picking up where he left off with lots of big runs and scoring plenty of touchdowns.

But as Coconino continued to dominate opponents, Flag High struggled as they played playoff-level opponents in Tempe and Prescott.  They had their chances against Mohave and were up on the Thunderbirds late at home, but they were penalized because an NAU cameraman interfered with a referee, keeping what became Mohave’s winning drive alive.  By midseason the Panthers were 5-0, but the Eagles were 2-3 and scratching their heads.

While Hanley’s Eagles has tried to play a wide-open offense the first half of the season, they simplified their game plan by Week Six when they hosted Bradshaw Mountain, beating the always-tough Bears 18-0 and realizing their defense was good enough to win games for them.  They got enough offense by pounding the rock with Jaramillo between the tackles and Colby Hollaway to the outside.  Their new formula for success proved true the next week with another shutout win over Lee Williams, but their signature win over Seton Catholic put the Eagles back into playoff contention.  After beating Mingus in Week Nine, they were 6-3 and on the bubble.

Though criticized for playing a weak schedule (which was written when they were 2-8 in 2017), the Panthers continued to burn through their competition, setting school records along the way.  The going got tough for them at home against Prescott in Week Six, finding themselves down 20-7 at half, but Joshua Monke’s pick six coming out of intermission sparked a comeback, and Coconino kept their winning streak alive by beating the Badgers, 34-27.  They clinched the Grand Canyon Region with two weeks to spare when they beat Lee Williams the next week.  They finally met their match when the Cactus Cobras came to town in Week Nine; despite their miscues, they were in position to lead at halftime, but came out flat against a Cactus team that would end the season ranked #2 in 4A.  That left the Panthers with a foul taste in their mouths, knowing they were better than the 53-14 score indicated, knowing their undefeated dreams were wrecked.  There was still plenty to play for in the Rivalry Game; they were 8-1 and looking to improve their place in the rankings, and if things lined up right, they could be hosting a playoff game in the first round, something that hadn’t happened since 2000, and something that had NEVER happened at Cromer Stadium.

The AIA added a new wrinkle to their postseason format for this year.  They would take the top eight teams from 4A/5A/6A and have them play for the Open Championship.  Perennial title winners like 4A’s Saguaro would be in the same bracket as 5A Centennial and 6A Chandler.  That meant the 4A champion wouldn’t be penciled in at the start of the season, that there would be more competition for the crown, and with two or three of the top teams in 4A playing in the Open bracket, everyone else in the conference would move up two or three spots.  This had a positive effect on both of our teams.  With the likelihood of Salpointe Catholic and Saguaro heading to the Open division, Flag High’s #20 ranking was more of a #18, which meant they still needed to beat Coconino to have a chance at the playoffs, but the would need less help from around the state to finish at #16.  Coconino’s #11 was looked at as a #9, and a win over Flag High could mean a leap to the top-eight and home-field advantage in the first round.

That buzz that circulated through the city to start the year was going full throttle at the end.  The playoff drought had been broken.  Both teams were talking postseason talk.  The Panthers were in, the Eagles needed to beat their crosstown rival and get a little help elsewhere to get in.  The Skydome ticket office was busy hours before kickoff, with advance sales approaching 1,200.

THE GAME:  Attendance for the game was the best in a decade as both teams had the playoffs on their mind and their fans came to cheer them on.

With both teams having superb runningbacks, they each sought to set the tone by getting the ball to their primary backs to near exclusivity.  The entire first quarter saw Zach Bennett and Luis Jaramillo getting the ball on nearly every play.  With all the running between the tackles, the quarter moved rather fast with each team getting the ball twice.  Flag High kicker Oscar Castruita’s 37-yard field goal attempt was no good, and the first quarter ended with neither able to put points on the board.

The conservative playcalling continued into the second.  Bennett and the Panthers were finally able to move into scoring position, where Jesus Trejo (who had sat out the previous five games because of injury) booted a 38-yard field goal to break the scoring drought.

When the Eagles got the ball again, Jaramillo continued to carry it, but Hanley started to open the offense up a bit, with Weidinger taking to the air.  A 28-yard completion to Luke Canizales brought them to midfield, and another converted a fourth down.  Panther corner Kyle Casados made an acrobatic, Lynn Swann-esque interception on Weidinger’s next pass, killing the drive.

After a three-and-out, the Eagles got the ball back and went back to Jaramillo, giving the ball to him four straight time, letting him pound the ball into Panther territory.  A run by Stephen Canizales and a Coconino penalty for defensive holding brought the Eagles to the Panther 19.  Coconino’s D stiffened, knocking Jaramillo back on first and second down, forcing the Eagles to pass, but they were unable to convert on third and fourth down.  The first half ended with the favored Panthers up by just a 3-0 margin.

The Panthers got the ball to start the second half, and with the Eagles keying in on Bennett, they changed their plan of attack a bit.  Coconino had learned that when defenses put their efforts into stopping Bennett, that leaves the middle of the line vulnerable.  Knowing this, they started giving the ball to Bo Gomez up the middle, and after carries of nine and 22 yards, they were already in Flag High territory.  After nine carries by Gomez, McCauslin, and Bennett, they were in the end zone on a nine-yard blast by Gomez up the middle.  The Panthers were up 10-0 with twenty minutes of game time left, but in a defensive tussle like this, that ten points seemed daunting for Flag High to overcome.

After a three-and-out, punctuated by Coconino’s Jacob Begay sacking Weidinger on the Flag High 19, the Eagles punted to Bennett, who fielded the ball is own 38 and returned it 48 yards to the Eagles’ 14.  Unable to do much with it from there, Trejo kicked a 28-yard field goal.  It was now 13-0, and the Eagles couldn’t afford to let many more chances get by them.

A defensive holding call on third-and-long kept Flag High’s next drive alive, but Coconino’s Malcolm Morris picked off another Weidinger pass, and the Panthers took over on their own 22.  Unable to do anything on offense, Coconino punted it away, the Eagles took over on their 44, and after a Jaramillo run for 16 yards, Flag High was marching again.  Assisted by a Panther personal foul, this time they got to the Coconino 13, and again, they were stopped without points.

The Panthers took some time off the clock, keeping the ball on the ground, moving the ball to their own 42, willing to play field position as they punted, giving the ball to Flag High on their own 13.  A Weidinger completion to Wetzel got the Eagles moving, but a 56-yard completion to Julian Milligan—coupled with a Panther defensive holding call—suddenly brought the ball to the Coconino 13, and from there, Jaramillo barreled in to get the Eagles on the board.  There was just 3:38 on the clock, but Flag High trailed by just one score, 13-7.

Coconino cleanly fielded the onside kick at midfield and did what they did best: run the ball, eat up yardage, and kill time.  Bennett and McCauslin ran outside while Gomez rammed himself up the middle, daring the Eagles to stop them.  By the time the Panthers had the ball on the Flag High 18, time expired.

Jaramillo ran for 105 yards, breaking the 1000-yard mark for the second season.  For all the great runningbacks in Flag High history, only Jaramillo had a thousand yards in both his sophomore and junior seasons.  He won the John Ply Memorial Award for being named the Outstanding Eagle of the game.  For his efforts on the offensive and defensive lines, Riley Darnell received the Bill Epperson Award as the Outstanding Panther.

 

Coconino 13, Flagstaff 7

AT THE END OF THE DAY:  Flag High ended their season with a 3-3 record in the GCR and 6-4 overall.  They doubled their wins from the year before, which was good news for Hanley, who is rebuilding the Eagles in the same way Lapsley has rebuilt the Panthers. 

After Salpointe and Saguaro were skimmed off the top of the 4A rankings to play for the Open Championship, Coconino finished the regular season at #8.  Indeed, they would get to play their first playoff game ever at Cromer Stadium, and it was a good one.  They played the Gila Ridge Hawks, a team from Yuma that was enjoying a similar history-making year, sharing the same 9-1 record the Panthers had earned.  The game bogged down into a defensive struggle, with both teams able to move the ball between the 20s but unable to put many points on the board.  DeHerrera recovered a Hawk fumble early in the game and ran it in for a touchdown, but the Panthers were never able to build much on their early success.  They built a 9-0 lead and the Hawks whittled at it away slowly, scoring their own touchdown before halftime after a questionable sideline reception kept their drive alive.  The Panthers came out after intermission and put two strong drives together, both stalling just inside the Red Zone, both coming away with no points.  Gila Ridge managed to tack on a 37-yard field goal in the fourth quarter to take the lead, 10-9, and their defense took over from there, preventing the Panthers from any meaningful penetration in their territory from there on out.  Coconino’s record-breaking season ended with a record of 9-2.  Bennett did manage 102 yards against the Hawks, bringing his rushing tally to 1,752, obliterating the school’s single-season rushing mark of 1,607, held by Bruce Branch since 2000.

Fans of high school football have every reason to be optimistic.  Both teams have strong-willed coaches who have rebuilt their programs, not just in terms of schemes and philosophies, but also mindsets.  Athletes who wouldn’t come out for football in recent years because they didn’t wish to be associated with losing are now strapping on the pads.  Youth football has also been on the rise, with three teams competing on the regional and state levels, winning championships, and feeding the high schools with experience and talent.  After years of watching Mingus and Bradshaw Mountain dominate the Grand Canyon Region, the tide is turning in favor of Coconino and Flag High, and we can look forward to our teams competing for region titles and playoff spots in coming years.  With more on the line, the Rivalry Game is becoming important again in terms of postseason implications.

  1 2 3 4 F
Coconino 0 3 10 0 13
Flagstaff 0 0 0 7 7

CHS:  Jesus Trejo 38 yd FG

CHS:  Bo Gomez 9 yd run (Trejo XP)

CHS:  Trejo 28 yd FG

FHS:  Luis Jaramillo 13 yd run (Oscar Castruita XP)

 

  STATISTICS       TEAM LEADERS  
Coconino   Flagstaff   Coconino   Flagstaff
13 Score 7   Zach Bennett, 135 Rushing Luis Jaramillo, 105
15 First Downs 14   Jordan Lucero, 0 Passing Joe Weidinger, 85
48/246 Rushing (Att/Yds) 33/130   N/A Receiving Julian Milligan, 56
0/2/0 Passing (Comp/Att/Int) 5/13/2.   Jesus Trejo, 7 Scoring Luis Jaramillo, 6
0 Passing Yds 85   Manuel Cardoza, 11 Total Tackles Stephen Canizales, 8
246 Total Offense 215   Jacob Begay/Riley Darnell, 1 Sacks N/A
0 Turnovers 2   Kyle Casados/Malcolm Morris, 1 Interceptions N/A
10/80. Penalties 1/5.   Zach Bennett, 48 Return Yards Luke Canizales, 92
        Zach Bennett, 24.0 Punting Oscar Castruita, 45.0

 

 

Click here to listen to KAFF Country Legends' broadcast of the 2019 game.  Dave Zorn does play-by-play, Reggie Eccleston does color commentary,Paige Daniels is on the field, and Bubba Ganter joins the crew in the booth.

 

Original Daily Sun story written by Lance Hartzler and Mike Hartman; November 2, 2019

Statistics compiled by Bob Oberhardt and Dave Merrell

Images from various sources

Last updated:  November 15, 2018