CASA GRANDE– Leading up to Friday’s matchup between No. 2 Canyon del Oro and No. 21 Vista Grande, the Dorados had one goal in mind: Maintain their spot in the 4A rankings as the playoffs inch closer.
While it was an uncharacteristic game of sorts for the Dorados, they were still able to power ahead to a 56-13 victory over the Spartans on the road, forcing a running clock in the fourth quarter as they rolled on to victory.
“It’s just one of those games you don’t feel great about,” CDO coach Dustin Peace said. “I’m high expectations, but we’ve got to take care of the ball better and we settled in on defense.”
Peace and his team had to persevere through a week of distractions because six of the Dorados were permanently dismissed from the team by the Amphi School District over an alleged violation of a conduct rule involving alleged drinking of beer at an off-campus party.
As the Dorados (7-1, 3-0 4A Kino) came bursting onto the field for kickoff, the players ran to the end zone for a pre-game prayer.
After finishing, the player who had the honor of carrying in the American flag while taking the field said to his team in the huddle, “Wrong day to choose for homecoming.” He then led the team in a chant.
The energy in the stadium was high, and the Spartans (6-3, 2-1) came prepared to play as they knew it was going to take everything they had to defeat the Dorados.
Vista Grande was set to receive the opening kickoff, but a fumble by the Spartans resulted in a recovery by CDO to start the game, giving the Dorados excellent field position from the start.
Taking over at the Spartan 31, the Dorados were able to punch in a touchdown from junior Jose Alba, followed by a good extra point for an early lead with 8:43 remaining in the first quarter.
After forcing a quick three-and-out, the Dorados got the ball back with around 6:40 left in the first quarter.
On the second snap of the drive, an interception by Vista Grande was returned to the 16 and set up the Spartans to cap off the drive. At the 1-yard line, Vista Grande had fumbled the ball but was able to recover, setting them up for a run and a good extra-point to tie the game with 4:01 left in the first quarter.
Once CDO got the ball back, it was lights out from there.
Despite a false start backing the Dorados up five yards to start the next drive, it didn’t take long for them to move the ball down the field thanks to back-to-back explosive plays for a total of 58 yards on the drive.
With senior Mavrick Neustadter in to take the snap, he was able to punch it in for a 1-yard touchdown. A good extra-point made it 14-7 with 33 seconds left in the first quarter.
The Spartans’ following possession was a bit of a mess for the Dorados defensively. After giving up a 30-yard play and calling a timeout, Peace was forced to burn a second timeout before play even resumed after miscommunication and lack of attention nearly allowed Vista Grande to snap the ball without one of the corners on the field.
Coming out of the timeout, the Dorado defense stepped it up, causing a tackle for a loss of three yards to end the first quarter and force the Spartans to punt the ball to start the second quarter.
CDO had more uncharacteristic play on the following drive, starting with the first snap. A fumble was quickly recovered for a loss of three yards, followed by two consecutive incomplete passes. After being forced to punt the ball away with 10:44 remaining in the half, it was time for the defense to get to work.
Things seemed promising at first for the Spartans as they were attacking the run game slowly but surely.
Shortly into the drive on a quarterback keeper, the Dorados were able to strip the ball, which was recovered by senior Ethan Krominga. From there, CDO took over at its 32 with 8:38 left before the half.
Capitalizing on the turnover, junior quarterback Tristan McClelland was able to find senior Daylon Beck for a 39-yard touchdown pass with just over seven minutes left before the half. The extra-point kick was good and the Dorados quickly took back all of the momentum.
Continuing the relentless attack, the Dorado defense was able to force a quick three-and-out and got the ball back into McClelland’s hands at the CDO 44.
Despite two holding calls, CDO was still able to get the ball across the line on a 14-yard pass from McClelland to Kendric Astacio to extend the lead. Making it 4-for-4 on the night, senior Alex Zillman put it through the uprights for another extra-point to make it 28-7 with 1:01 left before the half.
With one final push, CDO’s defense was able to force Vista Grande’s offense to punt the ball away as the remaining time in the second quarter was coming to a close.
CDO received the ball to start the second half, where beautiful work from the offensive line allowed for them to move down the field fairly easy. With 9:55 left in the third quarter, the Dorados were able to extend the lead on a 12-yard run from Astacio and a good extra-point from Zillman to take a 35-7 lead.
Vista Grande’s following possession was able to eat up about 2:30 off the clock despite netting zero yards before punting the ball away.
Taking over at the 41-yard line, it was a quick march for the Dorados to get back down the field. With 4:54 left in the third quarter, McClelland was able to hit junior Ryan Madsen for a touchdown followed up by another extra-point, extending the lead to 42-7.
Vista Grande had more trouble with ball security on the kickoff return, fumbling the ball at the 21, where it was recovered by the Dorados.
With the offense back on the field again, it only took two plays to get the ball into the end zone, with Alba punching it in once again. Taking less than a minute off the clock, they were up 49-7 with 4:03 left in the third quarter, essentially securing a running clock for the fourth quarter.
Just when things didn’t seem like they could get worse for the Spartans, another fumble resulted in a turnover around the CDO 40.
“We put a huge emphasis on our takeaways during the offseason,” Peace said. “I think last week we eclipsed the total that we had the previous year in all 12 games. That’s been a focus for us and you can see it pay off tonight.”
Knowing they had the game in the bag, the Dorados were able to cruise into the fourth quarter, where they put up one final touchdown on a run from Neustadter, pushing the lead to 56-7.
Vista Grande’s special teams were able to return the following kickoff for a touchdown and attempted to go for two but couldn’t convert, making it 56-13.
With around 8:00 left on a running clock, the Dorados were able bring the rest of the game to a close.
“We were careless early with the ball, and that kept them in the game, and the penalties were also an issue for us,” Peace said. “So, things to work on, and that’s kind of what it’s going to be about is us getting better regardless of who we’re playing.”
McClelland completed nine of his 14 pass attempts for a total of 202 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The Dorados finished with 383 total yards of offense.
After the game as Peace huddled with his players in the endzone, they discussed what they’re going to be focusing on for the rest of the season – the region title.
“Building to this point and allowing them to be the individuals that are making that change and building it is awesome to see, but we knew this was in the works,” Peace said. “They’re coming together really well, and even not at full strength, we are still a pretty good football team.”
He continued, “At the end, things started getting chippy and we’ve got to know that we’ve got a lot to play for moving forward.”
The Dorados have a lot riding on the two remaining games.
Not only will they look to bring home the region title, they’ll also look to maintain their grip on the No. 2 spot in the 4A rankings.
The Dorados will celebrate Senior Night on Friday when Empire visits.
“What’s good about that is we’re not perfect and we’re going to make mistakes and we’ve got some things to learn from,” Peace said. “[Vista Grande] is a tough team. They fought hard initially and got us a little bit off of our game a tad.
“Too many penalties on our side, though, so we’re going to have to see what’s going on with that. It’s something for us to work on.”