GILBERT — Under the bright lights of Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe on Friday, the No. 2 Salpointe Catholic Lancers will look to bring home the program’s first title since 2013 when they square off against the top-ranked Horizon Huskies.
For Salpointe Catholic coach Eric Rogers, he anticipates the winner will likely be determined on the final possession of the game.
“We expect it to come right down to the wire,” Rogers said as he addressed the media from the podium at Wednesday’s media day involving teams in the 4A, 5A, 6A and Open Division state championship games Friday at Sun Devil Stadium. “Maybe even whoever has the ball last. So, it should be an exciting football game.”
The No. 2-seeded Lancers (11-2) and No. 1 Huskies (11-2) will kickoff their game at 8 p.m.
In his 15th year with the Lancer program, Rogers has been to the state championships with the program three times previously, although never as a head coach. Now, in his second year at the helm, he’s helped continue to embody the Lancers’ long-standing pride and tradition built within the culture of the program. Rogers says the team understands the responsibilities they’ll have of representing Southern Arizona and is extremely honored to have the opportunity, especially with where they started this year.
At the beginning of the season, there was a lot in question regarding what to expect from the Lancers on the field. Only three starters returned on each side of the ball, leaving a lot of guys with big shoes to fill. While things got off to a bit of a rocky start for Salpointe Catholic, the team was finally able to get into a groove near the midway point. Their success positioned them for a strong push to close out the regular season and gave them prime seeding in the playoffs.
“We returned six of the 22 starters from last year,” Bourguet said. “Only three on the offensive side and three on the defensive side. So it’s kind of crazy, you know, usually it’s the other way around. Usually a state championship team will return about 15 or 16 dudes from the previous year.”
Bourguet had the most experience on the team out of anyone. After stepping up to play for the Lancers in the 2019 playoffs following an injury, he was able to get his true title as the starter in 2020. For Rogers, Bourguet was really the only certainty when it came to what he could expect from the offense.
“We knew Anthony [Wilhite] and we knew what he was capable of, but you just didn’t know for sure how he was going to perform or what he was going to do,” Rogers said. “He stepped up in a huge way.”
Much of the Lancers’ success has stemmed from the legs of the senior running back. Wilhite has rushed for 1,454 yards and 18 touchdowns this season while also catching 13 passes for 113 yards and two touchdowns. Previously sitting behind Texas-stud running back and Lancer alumnus Bijan Robinson, Rogers knew Wilhite had learned a lot from those who came before him. The big question surrounding Wilhite was how he’d perform in the game.
Wilhite hasn’t been the only player who has stepped up to help carry the Lancer team to victory this year.
“For Dylan [Dreis] to accept his role and be a wide receiver for us,” Rogers said, talking about how he moved from his traditional position as a quarterback. “Then Michael Aguirre stepped up. Cody Raetzman stepped up. Antonio [Martinez] playing both sides of the ball, starting at corner and playing receiver. It’s been awesome to watch them grow and develop.”
Rogers says that Martinez is able to use his experience as a receiver when he is playing as a corner because he has a better understanding of the offense. It also helps when it comes to reeling in the catch.
Bourguet said the team’s ability to unite as one and reach this milestone is because of their strength and conditioning coach.
“Who is the glue or what is the glue, I’d have to give all the credit to coach Carla Garrett,” Bourguet said. “She busts her butt every single day to make sure that we are reaching our limits and pushing us through those limits and making sure we’re giving 100-percent effort every time.”
RELATED: Brittany Bowyer’s feature earlier this season on Salpointe strength and conditioning coach Carla Garrett, an Olympic distance thrower who starred at Arizona.
Bourguet continued, “She makes sure we know who we’re representing and what we’re representing. It’s not just the name on our back. It’s more than just that. It’s more than just Salpointe Catholic; it’s all of Tucson. It’s the alumni.”
“They realize it’s not about them,” Rogers said. “That’s all I ever wanted them to do, was just realize this game is much bigger than just ourselves. It’s about our entire football team, and our community and Lancer Nation, for that matter. All the ones who have played the game before us, and representing and playing hard for them.”
For years, Garrett has been on the sidelines at every game with the football program helping to make sure the guys are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. She’s dedicated a ton of time to working with players both during practice as well as on their own time to continued growth and improvement. While she’s known as being a disciplinarian, she’s also the first one to be there for the kids with open arms and ears when they need a hug or someone to go to for advice.
While Rogers is excited to be going to the championship, he still knows the team has a lot of mental discipline and hard work ahead of them to come out on the other side victorious. Horizon will be no easy feat, as they’ve gone on to surprise people under first-year coach Andy Litten.
“They’ve got several weapons,” Rogers said. “Their quarterback is a gutsy, gutsy kid. He’s not afraid to take off and run it. We’ve got to try to contain him. They’ve got a great tight end, he’s explosive and like Coach Litten said [at the podium] he’s one of the best in the game.”
Previously at Hamilton as an assistant, Litten traded in one Husky family for another when he moved over to Horizon. While the program didn’t lack talent, the team finished the 2020 shortened season with an average record of 3-3. It wasn’t terrible, but very few anticipated they’d end the following regular season at 8-2 while the top-seed for 5A.
Originally from Southern Arizona, Litten has a longstanding relationship with both Rogers and Bourguet, who he gave a shout out to during his team’s introduction at the podium. While the competition will certainly be intense, there’s a lot of mutual respect between the two teams leading up to the game.
“Coming from Tucson and seeing Treyson [Bourguet] play when he was [little] to where he’s at now, I’m very proud of you,” Litten said. “I agree with you completely, Coach [Rogers], it’s going to be a great one, and we look forward to getting to play your great team.”
This year, the 5A division saw more parity thanks to some school reclassifications and the open division. Additionally, the continuous growth of Arizona as a whole has helped elevate the level of play across the state. This year may arguably be the most competitive slate of state championship games in years, showing that Arizona football is continuing to trend in the right direction overall.
As the Lancers hit the grass this Friday night, it will be a special moment for them. A team with 20 seniors, it’s one final opportunity for them to all suit up as brothers together.
“This is it, this is my last shot,” Bourguet said. “I definitely want to give it everything I’ve got playing with my brothers. I have cousins on the team, I’ve known Coach Rogers ever since I was a little boy, and just playing one last time in front of my family is truly a blessing. I’m gonna make sure to give it everything I’ve got and I refuse to be denied.”
“It’s special,” Rogers said. “We’ve got 20 seniors on our football team and every one of them has played a huge role. At some point in this season, we’ve relied and counted on every single one of them, and that’s what makes it special.”
Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07