LEADING IN:The Panthers were limping to the rivalry game.They had been riddled with injuries all season, most notably Mike Miller, Eric Olson, and Sean Buckreis.As a result, they plowed through the season and collected a string of tough losses.A shocking tie to Winslow was an omen of things to come, and after a mid-season streak of four losses (including heartbreakers to Lake Havasu City (6-0), Washington (9-6), and Prescott (10-7)), they were sitting with a 1-4-1 record and had to win out for a shot at the playoffs.In an attempt to jumpstart the struggling offense, Head Coach Mike Olson shifted established quarterback Brad Jenkins to receiver and replaced him with out-of-state transfer Jon Shereck, and it seemed to work after wins over Independence and Glendale.Losing to Cortez in Week 9, however, ended the Panthers’ postseason dreams and assured them of their first losing season since 1972.A win over Flag High in the finale, however, would salvage their season.
The Eagles started the year strong, ranked as high as #2 in AAA Division II early. By the end, though, they were also a hurting unit, as defensive ends Jason Gray and Todd Bishop were dinged, and two of the heroes of the ’85 game, junior quarterback Mike Caputo and senior runningback Manuel Delgado, were out.Record wise, they weren’t as in bad of shape as Coconino was, going into the season finale with a 6-3 record and a fighting chance for the playoffs.With Caputo out, quarterbacking duties fell to Eddie Messman.Running the ball, however, was handled by the latest of the Gill runningback brothers, Pup, and even he had been dinged up early in the season; though he returned to the lineup, he hadn’t been quite the same.
The stars were aligning for Flag High on the final Friday of the regular season.They needed help to get into the playoffs, and they got it as Washington upset Prescott.A win over the beleaguered Panthers and they’d be in, and being the favorite, they were confident they could make it so.
THE GAME: Tonight’s game was the first time all year Coconino was relatively healthy.Miller was back in the lineup, as was Olson, who had suffered a shoulder separation two weeks prior, and Chris Weller and Victor Lobato, both nursing bad ankles and iffy for the game, dressed and started.The Eagles weren’t as fortunate, but Messman was experienced, and Gill was certainly capable of a big game.
The game was a scoreless deadlock until the start of the second quarter, as the Panthers ended the drought when Shereck hit Jenkins on a 54-yard out-and-go.The Eagles weren’t yet too concerned, they were down 7-0 last year at halftime and won.They hadn’t accomplished much on offense to this point, made a few mistakes, but they felt it was just a matter of time before they could get the ball rolling.
Running the same route on the first play of the second half, Shereck struck gold again when he hit Myron Hansen, this time for 70 yards.Olson finished off the drive with a 10-yard score.When Flag High got the ball, Gill fumbled deep in their own territory; George Pedraza recovered for the Panthers and they took over on the Eagles 13.Olson ran in another touchdown, and with only two minutes gone in the third quarter, the Panthers had quickly built a 21-0 lead.
Flag High finally got on the board on the next drive, with Messman orchestrating a seven-play, 95-yard drive, capped off by a 15-yard touchdown pass to Blue Van Dyke.They looked as if they were finally on track, and after they forced the Panthers to punt, they put together another drive, getting as close as the Coconino 9; it ended as Jenkins intercepted Messman’s pass in the end zone and, with it, the Eagles’ momentum.
Early in the fourth quarter, the Eagles caught a break as a bad snap sailed over the punter's head and through the end zone; they were down, 21-9, but not yet out.The Panther defense rose to the occasion, and with every Eagle threat, Coconino had an answer.Defensive back Andy Wachter had a huge night, batting away six Messman passes and intercepting one near the end of the game that took the life out of Flag High.
Olson tacked on one more score and finished the game with 102 yards and three touchdowns.Though the Eagle offense ultimately outgained the Panthers, turnovers cost them dearly, giving up the ball five times versus Coconino’s zero.
Coconino 28, Flagstaff 9
AT THE END OF THE DAY: This is the game that proves it doesn't matter what the records are coming into the game, you can toss all that out the window. “We had people in our own high school who were betting against us,’ defensive lineman Bubba Ganter said about how much of an underdog Coconino was, “Nobody had much faith in us at all.We didn’t have a great season and we broke down a lot.But tonight we wanted it more.We ended on a positive note.”
This was the first time in nine years that neither team made the playoffs.The Panthers finished 4-5-1, but they defined their season by beating the Eagles, so much so that, come basketball season, Panther fans would taunt the Eagles with chants of “28-9!28-9!”They relished the role of spoiler, and the win erased the memory of a season marred by tough losses and tough injuries.For Flag High, tonight’s loss meant their string of playoff appearances was emphatically broken at the hands of their old nemesis.