By Jon Johnson
FOUNTAIN HILLS – The unbeaten Phoenix Christian Cougars hadn’t trailed all season, but they hadn’t faced a team like the Thatcher Eagles either. The Cougars played behind nearly the entire game due to a punishing Thatcher defense, and the Eagles moved forward to defend their state championship after dispatching Phoenix Christian at Fountain Hills High School on Saturday.
The Cougars were big and bad, and the Phoenix-area media had predicted victory for the only private school left in the 2A State Playoffs. But the Thatcher Eagles continued to roll through the competition in its quest to repeat as state champions and beat the Cougars, 40-14.
A lot has been said and written about the Eagles’ offense, and rightfully so, but it was the Eagles’ defense that vaulted them into their second straight championship game.
The No. 3-ranked reigning state champion Thatcher Eagles (12-1) were the underdogs against the previously unbeaten No. 2 Phoenix Christian Cougars (12-1), but the Eagles were the ones who came out hot, scoring touchdowns on each of their first three possessions while forcing the Cougars to punt on three of their first four possessions.
Thatcher head coach Sean Hinton told an Arizona Republic reporter that the newspaper gave the Eagles plenty of motivation by picking Phoenix Christian to win.
“Our boys just wanted it,” Hinton said. “Getting called overachievers and kind of underestimated just helps them out more. We tried to make it a good ole country boy butt whooping. I think we got there.”
The Eagles drew first blood on their first possession of the game as Trevan Clark completed the run-heavy opening drive by zipping untouched 24 yards to pay dirt. The extra point by Connor Russell was good and Thatcher took the early lead over Phoenix Christian, 7-0, with 7:58 to go in the first quarter.
The Cougars marched right back, however, and after converting on a 4th and 1, quarterback Hunter Cole hit his tight end on play action for an 8-yard TD. The extra point tied it up at 7-7, with 4:11 left in the first. The Cougars wouldn’t see the end zone again until 45 seconds left in the game when the Thatcher faithful were already celebrating the victory with the starters on the bench.
Thatcher’s offensive attack continued on its second possession as the Eagles successfully moved the ball down the field for another touchdown. After setting up 1st and goal from the 8 on a 7-yard run by Riley Morris on an option pitch from Tyler Roebuck, Quinton Turley finished the drive with an inside handoff for 8 yards. Russell’s extra-point was good, and Thatcher retook the lead, 14-7.
At the start of the second quarter, the Eagles defense forced a punt and Trevan Clark scooped up the offering at the 50 and took it back to the 25. On the very next play, the Cougars grabbed Jack Kortsen in the end zone for pass interference and the big, green offense machine was back in the red zone at the 15.
Quinton Turley then had his second rushing touchdown of the game as he scampered 11 yards into the end zone. The extra point was blocked, but Thatcher extended its lead to 20-7, with 11:08 left in the second quarter.
After the defense forced another punt by the Cougars, Thatcher had its first mistake of the game when Bretton Dodge fumbled the ball on his first touch of the night and Phoenix Christian recovered the ball in the red zone at Thatcher’s 20-yard line.
Thatcher’s defense stepped up again, however, and forced Phoenix Christian into a 4th and 12 from the 22. Instead of attempting a field goal, the Cougars went for it and Turley burst through on a blitz to force Cole to throw early and nobody was there to catch it. The Eagles then took over on downs.
Thatcher moved the ball to midfield, but the drive ended there and Roebuck set up for a punt for the first time on the night. The Eagles attempted a fake, however, but Montoya was knocked down at mid-field for no gain, and the Cougars took over with time running out in the first half.
Once again, the Eagles’ unheralded defense forced a Phoenix Christian punt and Thatcher took over at its own 13-yard line with just 27 seconds to go in the half. The Eagles don’t stop trying to score until all the time is gone, but Roebuck’s pass to Kortsen was intercepted, and Phoenix Christian took over the ball with 20 seconds left in the half.
The Cougars couldn’t capitalize on the turnover, however, as Trace Goodman and Kortsen each knocked down passes into the end zone and Thatcher went into halftime up 20-7.
Quinton Turley continued his big game at the start of the third quarter with a kickoff return to the 40-yard line. Turley then took the opening play from scrimmage in the second half 51 yards to the Cougars’ 9-yard line.
However, after a couple of stuffed runs and a few penalities, Thatcher went from 1st and goal from the 2-yard line to 4th and goal from the 17. The Eagles went for it but were stuffed and turned the ball over on downs.
The Eagles’ defense went at it again as Jack Kortsen intercepted Cole at the 10 and returned it to the 5-yard line.
On 2nd and goal at the 1, Shane Cooke plunged into the end zone and the Eagles got their score anyway. The 2-point conversion failed, but Thatcher was up big, 26-7, with 6:39 left in the third quarter.
After both teams punted (including Thatcher’s first punt of the day) the Cougars attempted a fake punt that failed. The Eagles made the Cougars immediately pay for the turnover on downs, as Gila Valley Central’s Player of the Game Quinton Turley raced 60 yards for his third touchdown of the night on the very next play. Turley then punched in the 2-point conversion, and the rout was on with Thatcher up, 34-7, heading into the fourth quarter. Turley finished the night with 142 yards on eight carries.
Roebuck then put the nail in the coffin with a 7-yard keeper TD on 1st and goal with 6:13 left in the fourth quarter, putting Thatcher up, 40-7.
Cole did hit a 36-yard TD pass in garbage time against Thatcher’s junior varsity reserves to end the game, 40-14.
Thatcher will play for its second straight state title against No. 4 Santa Cruz Valley at Campo Verde High School on Saturday, Nov. 25, starting at 1:30 p.m. Santa Cruz beat Round Valley, 24-21, to move onto the title game. Thatcher met Santa Cruz last year in the semifinals and came out victorious in overtime after an epic goal-line stand.