By Jon Johnson
After both teams cruised through the playoffs with easy wins, the No. 3 Thatcher Eagles faced off against unbeaten No. 2 Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils in the 2A state football semifinals Saturday at Fountain Hills High School in a heavyweight battle that became an instant overtime classic.
After a stunning goal line stand to force overtime, Thatcher’s Tormod Sandven came through with the game-winning extra point, and the Thatcher Eagles found themselves back in the state championship game for the first time since 2006, winning 27-26 over Santa Cruz Valley.
Thatcher head coach Sean Hinton described the goal line stand to Gila Valley Central.
“It (wasn’t) the first time this year,” Hinton said. “We just pretended we were hitting the sled and tried to get under the pads.”
It was a defensive battle in the first half, with both teams amassing only about 200 yards of offense collectively. Thatcher was limited to just 36 yards rushing in the first half, and its big-time running back, Nate Lee, had -three yards on four carries.
The Eagles’ defense also stood strong, however, and the first score of the game came on a big defensive play at 8:07 in the first quarter when quarterback Jake Dunlap intercepted a pass from his Santa Cruz Valley counterpart, Emilio Cosillos, and took it back 55 yards to pay dirt. Nate Lee powered his way in for the 2-point conversion, and Thatcher had the early lead, 8-0.
“We thought we would be able to get out on those guys but I guess they thought the same thing,” Hinton said. “They were up to the task and both teams kept fighting and hitting hard.”
The lead didn’t last long, however, as Santa Cruz Valley’s Devin Neal took the ensuing kickoff back 85 yards for a touchdown. Cosillos then completed a pass to Tiarro Jones for the 2-point conversion, and the Dust Devils evened the score with the Eagles, 8-8.
After a Thatcher punt, Santa Cruz Valley moved the ball down the field and eventually scored on a 41-yard run by Neal with 1:02 left in the first quarter. The ensuing 2-point conversion failed, and Santa Cruz Valley was up, 14-8.
After exchanging possessions a couple of times, Thatcher forced a punt and got the ball in good field position at its own 45 yard line. A couple of plays later, Thatcher tied it up when Dunlap hit Jonathan Trujillo for a 46-yard toss and catch. The extra point attempt was no good, and the teams went tied into halftime, 14-14. Dunlap finished the day 2-4 for 55 yards and the lone passing touchdown.
The defense continued in the second half as the Dust Devils had a big sack on Dunlap, forcing a fourth down and nine from midfield. Thatcher punted, and Dunlap pinned the Dust Devils back on their own nine yard line.
Santa Cruz managed to pick up a first down, but not without a cost as Neal left limping, nursing a lower leg injury he suffered earlier in the game.
Thatcher’s defense held, and the battle of field position continued as the Eagles started their second possession of the half at their own 15 yard line. Thatcher couldn’t muster any offense, however, and had just single digit net yards in the third quarter.
After forcing a punt, the Dust Devils started their second position of the half in good field position at midfield.
The Dust Devils utilized the field position and ran Neal behind their large front line over and over until they faced a fourth and one from the 19 yard line. Neal picked up the first down and Santa Cruz had first and 10 from the 15 yard line as the quarter ended.
Santa Cruz then opened the fourth quarter with a score as Neal took it around the right size on the second play of the period for a 12-yard touchdown. The 2-point conversion quarterback sneak failed, but Santa Cruz was up, 20-14.
“Their running back (Neal) was a big, tough kid,” Hinton said. “There were times I didn’t think he was going to get back up but then he did.”
The teams exchanged possessions and Thatcher took over at its 30 yard line with 6:19 left in the game. Nate Lee then exploded through the line and outran everyone else 70 yards to the end zone to tie the game, 20-20 with 6:07 in the fourth quarter. Lee fumble the 2-point conversion however, and the game stayed tied. On that one run, Lee bested Thatcher’s total rushing amount to that point by 15 yards. He would finish the day with 8 carries for 85 yards and the single touchdown.
Santa Cruz then controlled the clock the rest of the way through regulation as it pounded the ball against the Thatcher defense with Neal, Jones and Raoul Perales.
With less than a minute to play, Thatcher faced a goal line stand as Santa Cruz had second and goal from the one yard line. Santa Cruz went to its big back, Neal, who amassed 135 yards on the ground to that point; only the second rusher to do that feat against Thatcher all year. Neal was stopped, however, and Santa Cruz took a timeout with 10.5 seconds left in regulation. Santa Cruz went to its well again, but Thatcher brought back shades of its last-second victory against Safford earlier in the year and stumped Neal at the line of scrimmage for no gain and the contest went to overtime on a stunning goal line stand by the Thatcher defense.
In overtime in high school, both teams get four chances to score, starting at their opponent’s 10 yard line.
Thatcher won the coin flip and chose to play defense first. It took Neal just two rushes to score, making it in on second and two. However, Neal was stopped on the 2-point conversion, and Santa Cruz was up 26-20. Neal finished the day with 18 rushes for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
Thatcher then went to Lee, who brought it to the three yard line. On second down, Brandon Hayes scored to tie the game. Thatcher then turned to its foreign exchange student kicker, Tormod Sandven, who had missed an extra point earlier in the game. This time, Sandven’s kick was true, and Thatcher headed to the state championship game, dispatching Santa Cruz Valley, 27-26.
Thatcher will face unbeaten No. 1 Round Valley, which dispatched No. 5 Benson, 37-8, for the state championship. Round Valley bested Thatcher at home in Eager on Oct. 14 in a close game, 28-21. The last time four public school’s were in the semifinals was in 1992. Both final teams are in the same 2A East Division.
The Eagles watched the first half of the Round Valley game and then Hinton stayed until the end and took film.
“Round Valley is a good team,” Hinton said. “But if we execute we’ve got a good chance to come out on top.”
The state championship game will be played at Chaparral High School at 6935 E Gold Dust Ave, in Scottsdale on Saturday, Nov. 26, starting at 2 p.m.
“We’re going to ride the horse that got us here and just worry about ourselves,” Hinton said. “We’re going to do what we do. It will be a good game.”