Pusch Ridge lists only 31 players on its roster with a majority of them underclassmen, three of whom were starters as freshmen last season.
Those sophomores now — Will Way, Tyler Mustain and Bryce Jewell — played a part in Pusch Ridge’s 58-26 convincing win over visiting Thatcher on Friday night, but it was the junior class that carried the Lions (2-1).
Jayden Rittenbach, a junior who is 6-2 and 160 pounds, had a “breakout game,” according to coach Kent Middleton, with seven catches for 223 yards with three touchdowns. Middleton’s two-quarterback system of Ryan Fontaine and Hayden Hallett, both juniors, combined to complete 16 of 29 pass attempts for 289 yards without an interception.
“Coach says it’s amazing how good a team can be when no one takes the credit.” — @PRCAFootball junior WR @jaydenritt_6, who was one of many standouts for the Lions in a 58-26 win over @thatcher_sports tonight. Seven catches for 223 yards and three TDs. pic.twitter.com/CO3PiqUpQB
Javier Grajeda, a junior running back, had 11 carries for 48 yards with two touchdowns.
Evan Lovett, one of only 12 seniors on the roster, finished with 85 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.
“I’m glad my team was able to do their job so I can do mine,” said Rittenbach, who had six catches for 52 yards in the first two games. “Coach (Middleton) always says, ‘It’s amazing how good a team can be if no one cares to take the credit,’ and I think we executed that perfectly tonight.”
Other Southern Arizona schools would be hard pressed to boast a better sophomore class than Pusch Ridge.
“I like our energy and the kids are into it.” — @PRCAFootball first-year coach Kent Middleton says of his Lions, who are 2-1 after their convincing 58-26 win over Thatcher tonight. They travel to Safford next week. pic.twitter.com/5wNsKwh3dP
Remember their names:
— TE/DE Way, a legit 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. To put it into perspective, Arizona’s starting tight end Bryce Wolma is a senior who is the same height as Way and only about 15 pounds heavier.
— WR/LB Mustain, 6-2, 190. The Pusch Ridge coaching staff believes Mustain has much potential beyond high school at the Division I level. Strong, tough and fast. Mustain ran down from behind Thatcher speedster Brandon Napier when it seemed Napier was breaking an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Mustain led the Lions in tackles with 21 including two for loss entering Friday’s game. Way and Mustain stuffed a Thatcher runner on a fourth-and-1 play in the first quarter that helped set the tone for Pusch Ridge.
— WR/DB Jewell, 5-10, 160, is the fastest player for the Lions who last week at Yuma Christian returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown. Thatcher (1-2) purposely punted and kicked away from Jewell all game.
Assistant coach Lamar Lovett, a former Arizona receiver whose son is Evan, was told in jest before Friday’s game to make sure those young players never leave.
“They’ll stick together and stay here because they are so close, like brothers,” Lamar said.
Middleton is in his 33rd year of coaching, his first as a head coach. Although he’s been around for a while — including stardom as an Arizona Icecats player in the 1980s — he gets a charge out of coaching the abundance of youth on his team.
“I really like our energy and I like where our kids are at emotionally,” Middleton said. “They’re into it, so that’s nice.”
Middleton added that Pusch Ridge opened up its offense for the first time this season, spreading the ball with a balanced distribution of running and passing. To wit: Fontaine and Hallett nearly matched in Friday’s game their combined 30 pass attempts in the first two games.
.@PRCAFootball QB @ryanfontaine_4 completed 10 of 17 pass attempts for 197 yards and three TDs in the Lions’ 58-26 win over the Lions. Effectively split the the QB duties with Hayden Hallett (6 of 12 for 92 yards). Fontaine completed a 29-yard TD pass to Hallett for first score. pic.twitter.com/dRWcdxVn2K
Fontaine connected with Hallett on a 29-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down play to open the scoring.
“Me and Hayden, we’ve been competing all summer, we love each other,” said Fontaine, who played quarterback in the first and third quarter and Hallett the other two.
“We always make each other better. He even caught one of my touchdown passes tonight, which is amazing. I love that connection; we’ve had it since JV. (The two-quarterback system) is a good way to switch it up, too. The defense can’t always key on one of us because we have different styles.”
.@PRCAFootball RB/LB @EvanLovett2021 showed his versatility with 15 carries for 85 yards and a TD, many tackles at the line off the perimeter and one punt that went past 50 yards in the air in the Lions’ 58-26 win over Thatcher. pic.twitter.com/Ml7QpzAXyS
Fontaine also plays on defense, a unit that forced Thatcher to turn the ball over five times (six including the turnover-on-downs). Pusch Ridge recovered four fumbles and had an interception.
E.J. McKenna, another junior, recovered a fumble and also had an interception return of 30 yards for a touchdown.
In a game of many standouts for Middleton, Rittenbach stood out from the rest.
His toughness, speed, moves and elusiveness after the catch was particularly impressive with a 43-yard score with 26.4 seconds left in the first quarter that put Pusch Ridge ahead 21-6. He broke free from six tacklers and received a block from Lovett that helped clear the last 15 yards for a burst to the end zone.
Jayden Rittenbach with his second TD reception of the game. Hauls in the 31-yard TD pass from Hayden Hallett. @PRCAFootball leads 34-6 with 36.2 seconds left. EJ McKenna with a fumble recovery on kickoff. Lions threatening again. pic.twitter.com/zbrtsWtecq
He also had a 51-yard catch-and-run play late in the third quarter in which he fumbled at the end but the ball rolled out of bounds at the Thatcher 2-yard line.
“Once he gets consistent and confident, he’s a game-breaker, he really is,” Middleton said of Rittenbach. “He has great speed, and great vision and great moves. The quarterback has to get him the ball and they did that tonight.
“He does things where you look back at it and go, ‘How did he do that?’ It’s just the tip of the iceberg with him. Once he learns to get consistent with everything he does in practice and pays attention to detail, he can be a great player.”
Pusch Ridge needs one more game to reach the qualifying number for the Class 3A state playoffs. The Lions play on the road the next two weeks against Safford (2-1) and San Tan Foothills (1-2) before returning home for the last two games against American Leadership Academy-Ironwood (0-3) and Florence (0-2).
That means Pusch Ridge’s remaining opponents are 3-8 with two of them winless.
The toughest test will be at Safford next week. The Bulldogs opened the season winning 14-12 against visiting Eagar Round Valley, the defending Class 2A state champions coached by former Arizona standout Marcus Bell. Round Valley switched to 3A this season.
“I think we have a lot of potential this year,” Rittenbach said. “Once we come together as a team, you’re going to see that we are going to do great things. Our coaching staff is hoping to unite us, and as the season goes on, hopefully we’re going to get better.”
FOLLOW @JAVIERJMORALES ON TWITTER!
ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.