Cienega improved to 2-0 on Saturday afternoon with its 36-22 win at Ironwood Ridge, but after what transpired in the last 24 hours, the game was somewhat of a footnote.
Cienega coach Pat Nugent sat on his patio with his wife Friday night, drinking a beer, in what was not exactly a relaxing time.
“I was not too happy,” Nugent said. “I kept thinking we should be playing.”
The Bobcats were scheduled to host Nogales on Friday night but the Apaches were forced to cancel. They are in the second week of a 14-day quarantine after a player tested positive for COVID-19. Nugent thought he could possibly schedule a school in Tucson or the Phoenix area that was available because another school was forced to cancel.
“And then I saw the tweet,” Nugent said.
Buena’s game at Ironwood Ridge on Friday night was canceled. The Colts were called back to Sierra Vista, unable to play because of a positive COVID-19 result by a student.
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“The game got canceled at about 6:30 (a half-hour before kickoff) and our athletic director and principal made some phone calls,” Ironwood Ridge coach James Hardy said. “By 7 p.m., I think we knew we could put this game together.”
Nugent said he called his coaches and notified the players through a group chat that Cienega would play this week after all, at Ironwood Ridge in a Saturday afternoon game.
Cienega was slated to play Ironwood Ridge in the last week of the season when the schedules were created last month. The teams may still meet again at Cienega on Dec. 12.
“If we can get to a Game 7, we’ll just be happy with that; we’ll worry about that game at that time,” Nugent said.
The Bobcats had a ZOOM meeting Saturday morning at 9 to go over some film of Ironwood Ridge to prepare for the 2 p.m. game.
They could not arrange travel by bus across town from Vail to Oro Valley because of the sudden scheduling. The players arrived individually for the game at different times but most of them were there by 12:30 p.m.
After this whirlwind, brought on by this pandemic that has affected the lives of these young players and their families, Cienega finally played Ironwood Ridge.
Cienega running back Gabe Levy had another productive rushing game with 151 yards on 23 carries. Quarterback Ryan Swoger rushed for 62 yards on 10 carries.
“431 yards rushing (as a team) — I’ll take that,” Nugent said as he looked at the stat sheet.
The ability of Levy and Swoger to consistently run behind a physical and experienced offensive line, led by senior tackle Hunter Schlagel and senior center Andrew Husfelt, enabled the Bobcats to control the tempo for most of the game. More importantly, the performance allowed the Bobcats to again overcome a rash of turnovers.
Last week, Cienega persevered to a 28-14 win at CDO despite six turnovers because Levy rushed for 208 yards and Swoger gained 134. They combined for four touchdowns.
Against Ironwood Ridge, Cienega lost four fumbles, but Levy and Swoger consistently kept drives alive with their running. Levy scored twice again and Swoger also completed a 33-yard touchdown pass to Caleb Kidney.
“We have to figure out to stop turning the ball over; that’s 10 turnovers in two weeks. That’s just unheard of,” Nugent said. “It’s unbelievable that we have dominant wins like we have. It shows you how good we could be if we limit our mistakes.”
Perhaps because both teams took time to mentally get in sync following the uncommon sequence of the game coming about, neither could penetrate the other’s red zone until Ironwood Ridge running back Tyus Williams broke free for a 48-yard touchdown run with 4:15 left in the second quarter, putting the Nighthawks ahead 7-0.
Cienega responded with an 80-yard scoring drive in six plays, capped by Swoger’s touchdown pass to Kidney on a 4th-and-12 situation with 1:53 left in the half. Levy’s 2-point conversion run gave Cienega an 8-7 lead.
Levy admitted that he came out “flat” in the first half.
“My teammates really helped me get in the mood and get me able to be hyped up,” added Levy, who had 67 yards on 13 carries by halftime. “Credit to my line and my teammates for getting my stuff together in the second half.”
Cienega cornerback Trey Denetso injected life into the Bobcats when he made the first of his two interceptions with 10:50 left in the third quarter.
Cienega took possession at the 50. Eight plays later — after only running plays — Levy ran into the end zone from the 1-yard line on a fourth-down play. Swoger completed a 2-point conversion pass to put Cienega up 16-7 with 7:18 left in the third quarter.
Ironwood Ridge fumbled on its first play of its next possession and Cienega lineman Random Aiello scooped up the ball at the 30 and returned it for a touchdown. A 2-point conversion run by Levy increased the lead to 24-7 with 6:50 remaining in the quarter.
Offsetting Cienega’s four fumbles, Denetso and Aiello turned the tide against Ironwood Ridge with significant turnovers.
“We just keep getting better every day,” said Cienega’s first-year defensive coordinator Jeff Bollnow, whose team put the clamps on CDO’s talented running back Stevie Rocker Jr. last week. “We’re really focused on knowing what our job is as a unit. … When it’s your turn, it’s your turn, make the play, and celebrate with your teammates.”
Ironwood Ridge’s potent backfield of Williams and Jordan Thomas combined for 54 yards on four carries in the Nighthawks’ next possession, a 58-yard scoring drive. Thomas, only a sophomore, scored on a 27-yard run with 4:17 left in the third quarter to cut the lead to 24-14.
Williams finished with 127 yards on 11 carries and Thomas added 111 yards on 17 rushes.
“J.T. (Thomas) stepped in and broke some good runs and Tyus played a heck of a game,” Hardy said. “I can’t be more proud of him. We’ve had high hopes for him as a senior. He proved today what he is capable of doing.”
Denetso’s second interception, and subsequent 15-yard return, gave Cienega posession at the Ironwood Ridge 10 with 1:29 left in the third quarter.
Levy rushed three straight times, the final blow a 2-yard scoring run, to increase the lead to 30-14 with 11:35 remaining in the fourth quarter.
After a turnover on downs by Ironwood Ridge, Cienega put the game out of reach on Cole McFarland’s 45-yard touchdown run with 5:39 left in the game.
With a promising start in what Nugent hopes will be a seven-game season, he knows next week is not guaranteed.
The Bobcats are scheduled to make their third straight road game when they play at Buena next week, but questions surround the Colts’ availability for a game after Friday night’s abrupt cancellation.
“We won’t know if we will play that game until Monday,” Nugent said. “We’re in the wait mode and hopefully we can play again. What I don’t want to do is go through what I went through the last 16 hours.
“I was a stress case.”
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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.