To see statistics from Saturday’s championship game, CLICK HERE
GLENDALE – Canyon del Oro coach Pat Nugent was worried his football team wouldn’t be able to handle the enormity of the stage it played on for Saturday’s Class 4A Division I championship in the University of Phoenix Stadium.
As it turns out, the 63,400-seat arena that will host this season’s NFL Super Bowl was barely able to hold the heart the Oro Valley high schoolers showed down the stretch of their 23-21 loss to Scottsdale Saguaro.
“I never doubted the fight inside of them,” Nugent said of his team, which made its first title game appearance in 30 years. “This is a special bunch of kids and we’ve known that all season.”
Trailing 20-7 with 6:05 remaining in a game and a season which appeared over, CDO senior Ray Nettling blocked a Saguaro punt. Fellow senior Brent Lush recovered the ball at the 1-yard line, setting up the Dorados’ first offensive touchdown of the game.
After a rush for loss and a penalty, quarterback Daniel Nicholas hit Josh Robbins for a 15-yard touchdown pass, pulling his team within 20-14 with 5:06 remaining.
On the ensuing kickoff, despite 10 of Saguaro’s 11 kick return players bunched up tight waiting for an onside kick, CDO kicker Nick Marshall gently tapped the ball 10 yards toward the opposition anyway and made a diving recovery of the ball near midfield.
CDO’s starting running back Griffin Ronstadt, on just his third carry of the game, capped a seven-play, 48-yard drive with a 22-yard touchdown scamper, giving the Dorados a 21-20 lead with 3:09 remaining in the game.
“The comeback didn’t surprise me at all,” Saguaro coach John Sanders said. “My hat is off to that bunch of kids for what they did. Nothing about them surprised me. I knew coming in they were a great team.”
But Saguaro, the defending state champion with a 19-game winning streak and a roster full of college prospects, recovered from the Dorados flurry in time to set up kicker Steven Chiappetti’s 30-yard game winning field goal with two seconds left.
After a fair catch on the ensuing kick off, CDO had one last play. Fitting for a team with the state’s best defensive line, Saguaro ended the game with a sack of Dorado quarterback Doug Steele.
“It didn’t end the way we wanted, but it doesn’t take away from the year we had,” Nugent said. “A couple times, we were a play away from a state championship. But it just didn’t happen.”
Early on, it was apparent stage fright was getting the best of the Dorados.
Fumbles on the team’s first two drives, including one on the Dorados first play from scrimmage, set the tone for most of the game.
On the first play, Nicholas, the senior signal caller who has been the definition of poise and composure throughout CDO’s 12-2 season, pitched the ball to the wrong running back. Saguaro’s defense recovered the fumbled ball at the CDO 10-yard line, setting up a Chiappetti 20-yard field goal to give Saguaro a 3-0 lead in the first quarter.
Despite out-gaining Saguaro in the first half 122-101, CDO’s offense was unable to put any points on the board and the score would remain 3-0 at the half.
“I don’t think I really calmed down until the second half of the game,” Nicholas said.
He finished the game completing 18 of his 29 passes for 154 yards and one touchdown.
Nugent said it was because of Nicholas that CDO was in a position to play in a championship game and because of Nicholas CDO was in position to win the game late.
“No question, he did enough for us to win this game,” Nugent said.
Sanders added to the praise for Nicholas, calling him one of the state’s best.
“But we have a pretty good one of our own, the Gatorade player of the year,” Sanders said, referring to Saguaro quarterback Tim Ruben.
Ruben, who threw for more than 2,000 yards this season and passed the 2,000-yard rushing plateau for the year during Saturday’s game, proved to be too much for CDO’s stingy defense.
Ruben carried the ball 16 times for 101 yards and a touchdown. He also completed an efficient 12 of 15 passes for 78 yards. The only blemish on Ruben’s stat line was a second-quarter interception by Ronstadt. The Dorados junior returned the interception 40 yards, but CDO’s offense was unable to capitalize on the field position.
In addition to the valiant come back, CDO had a second bright spot in Saturday’s game.
Freshman sensation Ka’Deem Carey used the grand stage as his own coming-out party, announcing his presence on Arizona’s high school football scene when he returned a third-quarter kick 91 yards for a score.
The 15-year-old playing in just his sixth varsity game, later returned a kick to the Saguaro 30-yard-line and it was apparent Saguaro would avoid kicking his direction the rest of the game.
“Everyone tells us ‘He’s just a freshman,’ ” Sanders said, “But guess what, he’s just a fast freshman and there’s no substitute for speed. I don’t care if he’s 14 or 40, he can run.”
Carey had four rushes for 30 yards to lead the Dorados’ ground attack.
Saguaro finished with 20 first downs to CDO’s 11 and outgained the Dorados 323-186. The Sabercats also converted all three of their fourth down conversions, including two on the game-winning drive. Its defense racked up four sacks and a pair of fumble recoveries.
For more musings on high school sports, check out the Grammer School sports blog.