It All Came Down to the Final Play

October 27, 2017

NAU Walkup Skydome

LEADING IN:  The 2017 season marked the first time both teams retained the same head coaches since George Moate and Eddie Campos ran their respective shows.  Paul Wolf and Bob Castillo continued as co-head-coaches and sought to build on their .500 finish in 2016, while Jeremiah Smith entered his fourth season with the Panthers and looked to improve on ‘16’s 2-8 record.

Both teams started their seasons on the right foot with home wins on Opening Night.  The Panthers came from behind at Cromer Stadium to defeat the eventual 3A North champion, Page, 21-14, but the same disturbing pattern that has plagued the Cats since 2013 emerged right away; the injury bug began to bite early as junior runningback Kyle Sauer and lineman extraordinaire Cayden Fordyce had to leave the game, and by the time the Panthers made it to Phoenix to play Greenway the next week, you could add Zach Christopher to that list.

The Eagles won the Kickoff Classic by not fooling around at all with Coronado; in 2016 the Dons nipped the Eagles on a last-second touchdown to win, 51-50, but this time around they stepped on the Dons and didn’t let up for a second, capitalizing on every Coronado miscue, going up 34-0 early in the second quarter, and then cruising to a 44-12 win.

That win set the tone for the first half of Flag High’s season as they reached the midway point at 5-0 for the first time since 2006.  Victories over Youngker, Mohave, and Cortez were satisfying, but they were in control of their own destinies when they beat Grand Canyon Region bully Bradshaw Mountain, 44-37.  A loss to Thunderbird the next week brought the Eagles back to earth, but after defeating Lee Williams in Week Seven, they were 6-1, highly ranked in the 4A rankings, and 3-0 in regional play.

After beating Page in the opener, injuries continued to pile up for Coconino.  Sauer came back to run hard only for a broken leg to end his season prematurely.  Junior quarterback Ty Furr showed glimpses of stardom early on, but a shoulder separation put him out for a couple of weeks; when he returned, he played harder than ever.  But while the Panther defense was definitely improved (Coconino gave up a team-record 443 points in 2016, compared to the 285 they allowed in ’17) and kept them in games against teams that blew them out the year before, their offense never really clicked; with key players out from week to week, it was hard to be consistent, and as a result, the Panthers simply could not score more than 14 points a game from the opener to the finale, and as a result, they suffered through an eight-game losing streak.

Defense was also Flag High’s bread-and-butter, creating turnovers the offense could immediately cash in.  Three games into the season, nose guard Everett Evangelesta was among the state leaders in sacks with eight (he would finish with ten for the season).  Shane Lusk was returning interceptions for big yardage.  If it seemed they were light on the offense, maybe it was because their defense and special teams kept putting them in favorable situations, so they didn’t need a whole lot of long drives.  Henry Tagle proved to be capable behind center, Lucas Salcido had rushed for nearly 500 years in the first seven games, and a host of other Eagles—Josh Morrow, Josh Thomas, Tanner Caputo—joined in.  Cody Phillips, Xavier Sheffield, Dillon Joseph, they all contributed on both sides of the ball, playing the team concept, no one individual standing out, but everyone pitching in.

There’s never a good time for injuries to strike, but in the middle of a battle for the regional title has got to be the worst as the Eagles lost Salcido and Evangelesta for two key games down the stretch.  A loss to Mingus in Week Eight derailed the Eagles’ cruise to the GCR title, causing a pile-up at the top of the standings as they, Mingus, Prescott, and Bradshaw Mountain all had one loss in regional play with two games left.  They played Prescott tough the next week, but they just couldn’t pull it out at the end and lost, 22-12, knocking them out of playoff contention.

With the postseason no longer on the line, the 49th City Championship Game still gave the Eagles (6-3) and Panthers (1-8) something important to play for in the finale.  We knew both teams were capable of playing defense, but would the Panthers’ offensive woes continue, would they be able to put up enough points to stay competitive?  In 48 games, Coconino was 6-24 against Flag High when they scored 14 points or less, but 16-2 when they scored 15 or more, and since the Panthers just couldn’t get past 14 points since the Page game, not many around town gave them much of a chance against a team that had beaten them eleven of the previous thirteen meetings, even if both teams were banged up.

THE GAME:  Both teams were about as healthy as they could be for the finale.  Kyle Sauer was still out for Coconino, but Lucas Salcido and Everett Evangelesta were ready to go for Flag High.

The Panthers won the toss, but after a three-and-out drive, they punted, and the Eagles’ Shane Lusk returned it 35 yards.  Flag High’s offense did just about as well, suffering a sack at the hands of Dawson Buckley, and they punted, this time putting the Panthers back on their own 2.  The second time around was better for Coconino as they started to string a couple of first downs together; a Ty Furr pass to Bryce Wright moved the sticks, followed by a couple of QB keepers, but a muffed snap and then a sack by Colton Bond left the Panthers stalled and Furr limping. 

The rest of the first quarter and much of the second followed the same pattern.  One team might start clicking, but for every solid play on offense, the defense would step up.  Xavier Sheffield would gain 14 yards on a reception, and just as Flag High looked like they’d get things going, Cade Owen would pressure Henry Tagle into a near-interception and shake him up on the play.  Coconino’s Kyle Crenshaw would make his own 16-yard reception, but the Panthers would punt, get a personal foul for hitting out of bounds, and give Flag High the ball on Coconino 37.  Shane Lusk took over at quarterback for a series and kept things conservative, content to hand the ball off to Salcido and let him get chunks of yardage.  Finally he handed off to freshman Luis Jaramillo who barreled off right tackle for the final eight yards and the first score of the game.  Oscar Castruita nailed the extra point, and with 4:23 left before half, Flag High was up, 7-0.

Coconino experienced another three-and-out and had to punt, giving the Eagles excellent field position again. Tagle was back in behind center, but before he could get the offense rolling like Lusk did, his pass was picked off by Emilio Esquivel, who returned it to the Coconino 34 with about three minutes left till halftime.  Furr and the Panthers finally got their offense churning, starting with a 20-yard pass to Wright.  Kyle Casados followed with his own 11-yard reception, then Justin Brown and Bryant got into the act, and soon the Panthers were in the red zone.  With about a minute left in the half, the drive ended with Furr calling his own number; spreading the offense out across the 7-yard-line, Furr controlled a low snap against the turf, drifted and then scrambled to his left and, with three Eagles bearing down on him for a potential sack, darted left, put his head down, and dove across the end zone at the middle of the field.  The extra point was missed, and the teams went to intermission with Flag High winning the defensive battle, 7-6.

The third quarter was much the same, with Flag High starting its drive after two out-of-bounds kicks and a pooch kick on their own 42.  After a couple of solid runs by Josh Morrow and Lucas Salcido to move the ball into Panther territory, they fumbled on a handoff, Owen recovered, and the Panthers took over, only to go three plays and a punt again.  By this time, however, the Eagles were playing quarterback by committee; Tagle hadn’t been in since the second quarter, Lusk was needed for defense, so Morrow and Tanner Caputo were taking snaps as the situation called for, meaning the offense was very limited in what it could do.  So long as the defenses were in control, the offense didn’t have to do much more than chew up the clock and keep miscues to a minimum.

The Eagles were successful enough, however, to get first downs when needed, as Salcido got ten yards on a fourth-and-five, then Morrow got another ten to get them in scoring position.  They worked themselves into a first-and-goal on the half-yard line, when Morrow lined up under center, tried to fight his way in, got stood up at the 1, and just when you thought the referees should blow the whistle because his forward momentum had been stopped, here’s Zach Christopher with the ball, rumbling down the Flag High sidelines, getting caught from behind at about the Coconino 35.  The Coconino half of the Dome cheered frantically, the Flag High half jeered in disbelief, and though a controversial image swept through the Dome minutes later and gave literally everyone the impression that the referees made a MAJOR mistake, the Panthers’ offense trotted out on the field and the game went on.

As was the case for much of the game, the Panthers weren’t able to capitalize, and when Furr scrambled and tried to make something out of nothing to start the fourth quarter, he fumbled it away.  As was the case for much of the game, the Eagles weren’t able to capitalize and had to punt.  Probably because Furr was trying to press a little to hard, Kaden Doucette picked him off, and the Eagles finally cashed in on a turnover, as Castruita hit a 38-yard field goal to put Flag High up, 10-6.

Now time was running out on the Panthers, and when Furr turned the ball over for the third straight series—this time to Sheffield who leapt up from the right side of the  D-line to snag the ball and return it fifteen yards—that 10-6 lead looked like it would hold up.  Still unable to do more than hand the ball off, the Panther D held, forced another punt that went into the end zone, and with 2:09 left, Coconino was down by four with the ball on their own 20.

What happened next will go down in Panther lore as among the greatest gridiron miracles in their five-decade history, because for as lackluster both offenses were all night—and for that matter, for as lackluster as the Coconino offense had been all season—Furr and the offense woke up and roared.  He connected with Casados twice on square-out patterns to the left for big yardage, and with a pass interference call, the Panthers were suddenly at midfield.  He found Casados again on fourth-and-nine, same pattern to the right side, good for eleven yards.  Less than a minute remained from the Flag High 38, Furr heaved it downfield, jump ball between Bryce Wright and Cody Phillips, and Wright came down with it on the 4.  Furr ran the ball to the 1 as the final seconds ticked away, and as the Panther offense set up for what would be the final play, the Eagles started early, the offsides penalty put the ball on the half-yard line.  Last play of the game, Furr tries to push it in off of right guard, fullback Zach Christopher bulldozes him from behind to send him into the end zone, and with two-tenths of a second left on the clock, for the first time all game, Coconino was ahead.  They lined up for the extra point and smothered the snap, they kicked off straight to a upman to prevent a long return, and that was the end. (Click here for KAFF's call on the final minute)  

Lucas Salcido won the John Ply Memorial Award for being the Outstanding Eagle in Rivalry Game XLIX.  Panther defensive back Emilio Esquivel won the Bill Epperson Award.

 

Coconino 12, Flagstaff 10

 

AT THE END OF THE DAY:  Flag High finished at 6-4, their best record since 2013, but after starting the season as strong as they did, their success seemed bittersweet.  Both their freshmen and JV teams had outstanding seasons, which means the Eagles will have something to build with on top of finishing .500 or better five of the last six seasons. 

The Panthers find themselves in a similar position Flag High was in at the end of 2011, when the Eagles won the Rivalry Game as the decided underdog and did so in miraculous fashion, not only ending a mediocre year with a fantastic finish, but propelling themselves out of their funk and back to respectability.  Coconino had good seasons from their freshmen and JV as well, and many of the heroes from tonight’s game will be back next year.

A note must be made concerning the slow revival of the rivalry.  Over the six games Flagcoco has been at the Skydome, attendance has slowly risen, and while it doesn’t compare to the days when the teams were at the top of the AA North standings, it’s improving.  2017 was the first season with a consistent broadcast presence in years, and credit for that goes to Dave Zorn, Reggie Eccleston, and the crew at KAFF Country Legends for creating an entertaining radio atmosphere that could compete with other such crews around Northern Arizona.  NAU did a noteworthy job between The Lumberjack, Jack Central, KJack Radio, and NAZ Today.  Cody Bashore and Mike Hartman covered both teams again for the Daily Sun.  With local media throwing its muscle behind high school football as they did this year, the likelihood of a full Dome may not be so distant a dream after all.  If nothing else, our players deserve every recognition they earn, and with so many layers now that weren’t there just five years ago, it’s becoming clear prep football on the mountain, after over a decade of malaise, is back on the rise.

SCORING SUMMARY

 

1

2

3

4

F

Coconino

0

6

0

6

12

Flagstaff

0

7

0

3

10

 

FHS:    Luis Jaramillo 8 run (Oscar Castruita XP)        

CHS:    Ty Furr 7 run (kick failed)

FHS:    Castruita FG

CHS:    Furr 1 run (kick failed)

TEAM TOTALS

Coconino

 

Flagstaff

12

Score

10

27/73

Rushing (Att/Yds)

57/169

16/26

Passing (Att/Comp)

1/3

191

Passing Yards

14

264

Total Offense

183

3

Turnovers

3

 

INDIVIDUAL LEADERS

RUSHING

COCONINO

          Ty Furr:  16 rushes, 60 yards, 2 TD;  Justin Brown:  9 rushes, 12 yards;  Zach Christopher:  2 rushes, 1 yard          

FLAGSTAFF

          Lucas Salcido:  18 rushes, 80 yards;  John Morrow:  12 rushes, 44 yards;  Josh Thomas:  9 rushes, 22 yards;  Luis Jaramillo:  3 rushes, 13 yds, 1 TD;  Shane Lusk:  3 rushes, 10 yards;  Tanner Caputo:  2 rushes, -6 yards

 

RECEIVING

COCONINO

          Bryce Wright:  3 catches, 67 yards;  Kyle Casados:  5 catches, 48 yards;  Kyle Crenshaw:  3 catches, 36 yards;  Abel Harris:  1 catch, 12 yards;  Bryant Palmer:  1 catch, 11 yards;  Zach Christopher:  1 catch, 10 yards

FLAGSTAFF

          Xavier Sheffield:  1 catch, 14 yards

 

PASSING

COCONINO

          Ty Furr:  26 att, 16 comp, 191 yards, 2 INT          

FLAGSTAFF

          Henry Tagle:  3 att, 1 comp, 14 yds, 1 INT               

 

Original story by Cody Bashore and Mike Hartman of the Arizona Daily Sun; October 28, 2017

Statistics from the Arizona Daily Sun and MaxPreps

Images from various sources

Last Updated:  November 13, 2017





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