Pusch Ridge’s Season Ends But Lions Have Plenty of Reasons for Hope Ahead

Well after the lights were turned off at Scottsdale Coronado High School’s football field on Saturday night, a few of Pusch Ridge’s players continued to walk through some of their plays in the dark.

Junior wide receiver Jayden Rittenbach, emotional after Pusch Ridge’s 36-20 loss to Yuma Catholic in the 3A state semifinal game, was walking through a pattern.

Fellow juniors Ryan Fontaine and Hayden Hallett, part of Pusch Ridge’s effective two-quarterback system a la Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins with Arizona’s 12-1 team in 1998, conferred in the end zone and appeared as if they were visualizing plays as they walked through them still wearing their helmets.

Without a team bus waiting because of COVID-19 guidelines, the players lingered, not only trying to hold on to this season but also to prepare for 2021, which hopefully by late summer will be free of the pandemic allowing the Lions to be on schedule for the season in about nine months.

Pusch Ridge’s Strength Academy, its weight-lifting regimen four times a week, starts right after Christmas break.

“Everybody says our future is great; our future is great if we do the right things,” said first-year coach Kent Middleton.

Pusch Ridge huddles after the loss to Yuma Catholic (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Middleton quipped, “We could sure use an equipment manager,” as he walked across the Coronado field to his car toting a hefty supply container on wheels, his playbooks in his overstuffed backpack, a large cumbersome dry erase board and his drinking container.

All that was missing was a lunch pail.

The work Middleton and his veteran staff put in was the obvious reason why the Lions became an 8-2 team and worthy of a shot at the 3A championship.

“Our staff did a tremendous job all year … (Offensive coordinator) Brent Bartz, mention him if you can … Gary Minor, Calvin Knox, Anthony Coronado … those guys were just fantastic this year,” Middleton said. “A lot of our success was because of them this year.”

Bartz missed Saturday night’s game because his wife tested positive for COVID-19 and he is in quarantine. Minor, a long-time coach who once led Ironwood Ridge’s program to a state semifinal game, took over the play calling.

Bartz’s absence was really the only blip on the COVID-19 screen for Pusch Ridge this fall. With so many cancellations involving other schools because of positive tests with players and coaches, the Lions were a model program of doing things the right way to allow their players to keep playing.

Athletic director Lonnie Tvrdy, one of the best at following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, did not have to be concerned about the game operations at Coronado. He did say as he looked at the stands, “I still have to make sure our fans are wearing their facemasks.”

“There was a lot of times when we didn’t think we would have a season,” Hallett said. “We ended up having all of our games. All glory to God. It was special.”

Senior running back Evan Lovett, banged up and sore from an ankle injury suffered last week against Wickenburg, emerged from Pusch Ridge’s final team huddle with his familiar smile despite the loss.

His father, assistant coach Lamar Lovett, a former Arizona receiver who played for coach Dick Tomey, mentioned as the Lions gave their last hugs with the seniors, “We don’t look at the final score. Some may dwell on the score. We don’t.”

“We look at how can we become closer as a team and we’re grateful for the opportunity,” he continued. “We’re blessed. How many schools not able to play (because of COVID-19) would want to be where we are at right now?”

Lamar Lovett offers words of encouragement to junior receiver Jayden Rittenbach, who took the loss to Yuma Catholic hard (Javier Morales/All Sports Tucson.com)

Evan Lovett rushed for 59 yards on 16 carries and a touchdown against Yuma Catholic to finish the season with 1,401 yards on 117 carries and 17 touchdowns. His career totals as a four-year starter for the Lions are 3,411 yards rushing on 357 carries with 40 rushing touchdowns.

After a kickoff return Saturday night, Evan was slow to get to his feet. He finally walked gingerly back to the sideline limping after trainers tended to him for a few minutes on the field.

A short while later, he took four consecutive direct snaps and bowled over Yuma Catholic defenders each time with his 6-foot-1 and 210-pound frame. The sequence included an 8-yard run, followed by runs of seven, five and six yards.

The last run, in which he took three tacklers with him into the end zone after he reached the 3, cut Yuma Catholic’s lead to 23-20 with 2:14 left in the third quarter. That was a symbolic way for his last touchdown with Pusch Ridge to be scored.

“Adrenaline, grit and I felt the energy of my teammates,” Evan said of those four straight runs. “This whole week I struggled with it (the ankle injury), but to be honest, it was adrenaline and God’s will that let me go into this game.”

Middleton said Evan “proved some things tonight” by how he played tough through his injury.

“He was banged up all week and he played his heart out,” Middleton added.

Two plays after Evan’s touchdown run, Yuma Catholic’s super sophomore quarterback Richard Stallworth connected on a 50-yard scoring strike to primary target Austin Rush to put the Shamrocks ahead 30-20 with 2:02 left in the third quarter.

Stallworth’s other big play was a 55-yard touchdown pass to Devon Black during Yuma Catholic’s first possession of the game.

Stallworth was subdued for the remainder of the first half, completing only 5 of 12 passes for 100 yards in the half. But he was highly effective in the second half, completing 7 of 8 attempts for 136 yards. He finished 12 of 20 for 236 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions.

His 16-yard touchdown pass to Black with 1:11 left in the game concluded the scoring.

“I didn’t do a great job tonight as far as coaching and getting our guys to slow them down; I thought we were going to be better than that,” Middleton said of his defense against Stallworth and Yuma Catholic’s Air Raid offense.

“We had a hard time covering them. They were getting behind us. Looking back on it, I probably should have stayed with the pressure more than I did. I didn’t. We got back to it later in the game and it helped. That kid can wing it and they have four or five receivers that can catch it as well as anybody in the state.”

Hallett and Fontaine were productive leading Pusch Ridge’s offense.

As was the case all season, they split the duties with Hallett playing the first half and Fontaine behind center most of the second half.

Hallett completed 7 of 14 passes for 77 yards and Fontaine finished 6 of 9 for 58 yards, combining for a 13-of-23 performance for 135 yards.

Twice in the fourth quarter, Fontaine led Pusch Ridge deep into Yuma Catholic territory but came up empty. The Lions missed a field goal and they stalled at the Shamrocks’ 14-yard line as the game expired.

“We came out here with a slow start and came out really strong after halftime. We just have to use (this experience), build on it, use it. We’re a young team, so store this, work hard for it and come back here next year,” said junior running back Javier Grajeda, who led the Lions with 82 yards on 11 carries, including a 50-yard run on the drive that resulted in a missed field goal.

Grajeda rushed for 199 of his 637 yards this season in the playoff games against Wickenburg and Yuma Catholic the last two weeks.

He is an example of the promising young talent returning for Middleton and his staff next year.

The sophomore trio of linebacker Tyler Mustain, defensive end Will Way and defensive back/wide receiver Bryce Jewell are already two-year starters. Jewell had an 85-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half against Yuma Catholic and Mustain and Way consistently applied pressure on Stallworth.

Rittenbach, who had a breakout season at receiver, will return for his senior season.

The major concern is the Lions having to replace five linemen who are graduating — Jonathan Morgan, Carson Lewis, Gabriel Witt, Nick Urias and Justin Ripperdan. Evan Lovett and fellow seniors Kannon Jewell and Phillip Raica have also exhausted their eligibility.

“Obviously, we’re an underclassmen-laden team, but the senior leadership we got this year was fantastic,” Middleton said. “We would not be here without them.”


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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
To Top