When Safford routed Pusch Ridge Christian Academy almost a year ago to the day, the Lions had only seven seniors on their roster — the same number of freshmen on the team.
Safford won at home 50-7 on Oct. 25, 2019, in Pusch Ridge’s second-to-last game of the season.
The Lions (2-1) face the Bulldogs (2-0) on Friday, again at Safford, in what is the midway point of the COVID-19-delayed 2020 season.
“Safford put it to us pretty good last season,” said first-year head coach Kent Middleton, who was an assistant on former coach Jerry Harris’ staff.
“The fact that they clobbered us last year, that is something we have to deal with. We know we have to obviously do much better.”
Three of Pusch Ridge’s seven freshmen from last year started and experienced extended playing time last season — tight end Will Way, defensive back Bryce Jewell and linebacker Tyler Mustain.
Way, Jewell and Mustain combined for 19 tackles against Safford.
Quarterback Hayden Hallett, a sophomore last season, took his lumps in the game completing three passes for 37 yards. He now shares the quarterback duties with fellow junior Ryan Fontaine, an effective tandem.
Evan Lovett, who was a junior, had an uncharacteristic 36 yards rushing. Javier Grajeda, an emerging threat out of the backfield as a tough-as-nails back, led the team with 37 yards on the ground as a sophomore.
Wideout Jayden Rittenbach, a sophomore a year ago, was on the junior varsity team.
All these players are a year older but still young, with the exception of Lovett, a four-year starting running back and defensive back.
“The real cool thing about coaching at a place like Pusch Ridge is you have freshmen that are real good friends with seniors because of the size of the school,” said Middleton, referring to the private school with an enrollment of about 700.
“They might be playing on a football team together and that’s unusual for a high school … really, really, really unusual. It’s really cool to see the lower classmen and the upperclassmen bond together because you don’t usually see that in a regular high school. These kids do a great job with that.”
Rittenbach, only three games into his varsity experience, has earned the AllSportsTucson.com APS Digital Print/Frog & Firkin Player of the Week honor for his “breakout game” — as Middleton put it — in a 58-26 win over visiting Thatcher last Friday.
He was presented a banner from APS Digital and a football from Frog & Firkin after practice today.
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
Following his performance against Thatcher — six catches for 215 yards with three touchdowns — Rittenbach deflected attention like any underclassmen should to stay within the team framework.
“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.”
Hallet and Fontaine had enough time behind Pusch Ridge’s line to combine to complete 18 of 31 pass attempts for 326 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions.
The game against Safford will give Pusch Ridge its qualifying amount of games (four) to reach the 3A state playoffs.
A win could put the Lions at a high-seed position for the playoffs with the potential of a 6-1 regular season. Their last three scheduled games against San Tan Valley Foothills, American Leadership Academy-Ironwood and Florence are against teams who are a combined 1-7.
Veteran teams usually take that opportunity as business as usual.
Young teams like Pusch Ridge could look too far ahead.
Middleton is not concerned because of the mature character of his players.
“It’s a great group of kids; they really do love and care about each other,” Middleton said. “When you go through something like every school is going through this year (with COVID-19), not knowing when you’re gonna play and not knowing whether you’re going to have a season … seniors don’t know if they can play another game in their careers.
“I think that has a tendency to bond people together. So a crisis or adversity can do two things to a team. You can fall apart, or you can come together. This group has really come together.”
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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.