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Santa Rita falls just short in state title game

Santa Rita's Nick Cromier (9) reacts after making a costly mistake in the second quarter.

Santa Rita's Nick Cromier (9) reacts after making a costly mistake in the second quarter.

Box Score / Slideshow

Santa Rita loses state championship

The No. 6-seeded Santa Rita Eagles lose 30-26 to No. 1 seed Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep Saints in the Class 4A Division II state football championship game.


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Santa Rita's Chris Mulford (4) ends up upside down after tackling Notre Dame's player in the second quarter.
Source: FRANCISCO MEDINA/Tucson Citizen

/ 4A-II Playoff Bracket

TEMPE – One decade removed from hoisting his third and final state championship trophy with the Sabino team he built into a state power, Jeff Scurran again looked at home Saturday coaching high school football in Sun Devil Stadium.

The second-year Santa Rita coach made almost all the right calls and his players came up with almost all the big plays necessary to pull off the upset in a 30-26 loss to Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep in the Class 4A Division II football championship.

But nearly an hour after the 61-year-old coach was done consoling his team, family, fans and supporters after the loss, and long after he was done flashing his patented Scurran smirk in front of television cameras while entertaining the largely Phoenix-area media contingent interviewing him, Scurran sat back in a chair in his team’s locker room and paused.

“You know, we played a hell of a game but this is all missing just one thing,” said Scurran, the disappointment of how close his upstart Eagles program came to victory seemingly finally setting in. “We’re missing just one thing.”

While Scurran and the young Santa Rita squad did put on a show on the state’s largest stage, even having a chance in the final minute of the game to win, the prospect of driving back to the East Side campus with a runner-up trophy instead of that of the 4A-II champion, suddenly seemed like very little consolation for the coach and the team that has gone 23-4 since he took over after an 0-10 season in 2006.

“Coach put us in the right position to make plays, and we did make plays all game,” said junior quarterback Ian Garlets, who threw for 297 yards and two touchdowns, rushed for 19 yards and touchdown and recovered a fumble with 1:37 remaining in the game to set up his team’s last-ditch rally attempt. “. . . We just had some mental mistakes we couldn’t afford to have. That’s what happened.”

Down 30-20 and facing a 4th-and-goal from the 25-yard line, Garlets threw his best ball of the game to the back corner of the end zone, where junior Greg Jones out-jumped several Notre Dame defenders for the touchdown, pulling Santa Rita within 30-26 with 19 seconds left in the game.

The touchdown strike came a play after Garlets took a 13-yard sack, prompting the raucous Notre Dame student section, while hoisting a plastic Jesus statue, to begin chanting toward Garlets “Choke! Choke! Choke!”

Their silence became deafening after Garlet’s touchdown pass, but it erupted again moments later when Notre Dame recovered a failed onside kick attempt and ran out the clock for its second-straight state title and its 23rd consecutive victory.

Notre Dame coach Scott Bemis acknowledged the scare Santa Rita put into his team.

“Hats off to Santa Rita and coach Scurran,” Bemis said. “That’s a great coaching staff. Those kids buy in to what he does and this is what a state championship is supposed to be.”

Santa Rita’s furious rally didn’t come as a shock to senior receiver J.J. Holliday, whose team had a handful of last-minute and overtime victories in 2007 and scored nine points in the final 47 seconds of its 23-21 come-from-behind quarterfinal win over rival Palo Verde on Nov. 21.

“There’s just something in us,” said Holliday. “If it’s close, as long as there’s time left, we play our hearts out no matter what. We did that today as long as we could.”

As for the chants of “Choke!” being hurled at his star safety/quarterback, Scurran fired back.

“That’s very strange to see a Catholic school with some of the rudest people I think I’ve ever been around,” Scurran said. “I don’t understand that. It’s been a long time since I’ve been cursed out before a game and the funny thing is, I don’t think that would happen (to any coach) at Santa Rita.”

Notre Dame benefited not only from its own well-played, well-coached game, but from three Santa Rita turnovers and an ill-timed muffed punt return.

Holding a 13-7 second quarter lead, Santa Rita’s defense forced a fourth down punt that Nick Cormier mistakenly touched after it had been partially blocked. The touch made it a live ball for Notre Dame to recover and regain possession near midfield. Three plays later, Notre Dame’s Patrick Foley ran 37 yards for a touchdown and a 14-13 lead, one the Saints wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the game.

“When we blocked that punt and then for whatever bonehead reason our kid tried to field it in the air, that sure took our momentum away, that’s for sure,” Scurran said.

Notre Dame’s 17-13 halftime lead grew in the third quarter when it took the opening drive 80 yards on 14 plays, all runs, for a touchdown, increasing its lead to 24-13.

The run-first Saints found plenty of success on the ground Saturday, rushing for 358 yards almost exclusively from seniors Andrew Stutz (34 carries, 182 yards and two touchdowns) and Foley (13 carries, 17 yards and one touchdown).

“I’m really kind of surprised it took them so long to figure out they’re 100 pounds per man bigger than us, but eventually they did get it,” Scurran said when asked if he was surprised Notre Dame went away from the run more than expected in the first half.

Santa Rita countered Notre Dame’s size advantage with speed at every position. Holliday caught six passes for 117 yards and a 13-yard second quarter touchdown. He also scored a second touchdown in the third quarter when he recovered a Jones fumble in the end zone, cutting the Notre Dame lead to 24-20.

Jones, a junior who seems destined to carry the torch passed on by the graduating Holliday as Garlets’ go-to receiver in 2009, had a bit of a coming out party Saturday with five catches, 120 yards and a pair of leaping highlight-reel catches – one that set up his team’s first touchdown, the second for his team’s final score of the game.

In the end, however, Notre Dame’s size proved to be too much for the speed and quickness of Santa Rita.

“You can’t coach size,” Scurran said. “You can develop heart over time. You can develop strength. But hey, you can recruit size, that’s about all you can do.”

Along with Jones, Holliday and Garlets, Scurran said he couldn’t have been prouder of his entire team’s effort Saturday.

“I’m not sure that the team that played the hardest won today,” Scurran said.

For more on high school sports, check out the Grammer School sports blog.

Santa Rita's Chris Mulford (4) ends up upside down after tackling Notre Dame's player  in the second quarter.

Santa Rita's Chris Mulford (4) ends up upside down after tackling Notre Dame's player in the second quarter.

Santa Rita's JJ Holliday makes a catch in the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Santa Rita's JJ Holliday makes a catch in the end zone for a touchdown in the second quarter.

Slideshow #2

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