Pusch Ridge Exhibits Young Talent in 58-26 Win Over Thatcher

Pusch Ridge junior Jayden Rittenbach had seven catches for 223 yards and three TDs in Pusch Ridge’s win (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Pusch Ridge lists only 31 players on its roster with a majority of them underclassmen, three of whom were starters as freshmen last season.

Those sophomores now — Will Way, Tyler Mustain and Bryce Jewell — played a part in Pusch Ridge’s 58-26 convincing win over visiting Thatcher on Friday night, but it was the junior class that carried the Lions (2-1).

Jayden Rittenbach, a junior who is 6-2 and 160 pounds, had a “breakout game,” according to coach Kent Middleton, with seven catches for 223 yards with three touchdowns. Middleton’s two-quarterback system of Ryan Fontaine and Hayden Hallett, both juniors, combined to complete 16 of 29 pass attempts for 289 yards without an interception.

Javier Grajeda, a junior running back, had 11 carries for 48 yards with two touchdowns.

Evan Lovett, one of only 12 seniors on the roster, finished with 85 yards on 15 carries and a touchdown.

“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 tonight.”

Other Southern Arizona schools would be hard pressed to boast a better sophomore class than Pusch Ridge.

Pusch Ridge sophomore tight end/defensive end Will Way is a burgeoning prospect (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Remember their names:

— TE/DE Way, a legit 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. To put it into perspective, Arizona’s starting tight end Bryce Wolma is a senior who is the same height as Way and only about 15 pounds heavier.

— WR/LB Mustain, 6-2, 190. The Pusch Ridge coaching staff believes Mustain has much potential beyond high school at the Division I level. Strong, tough and fast. Mustain ran down from behind Thatcher speedster Brandon Napier when it seemed Napier was breaking an 80-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Mustain led the Lions in tackles with 21 including two for loss entering Friday’s game. Way and Mustain stuffed a Thatcher runner on a fourth-and-1 play in the first quarter that helped set the tone for Pusch Ridge.

Tyler Mustain is projecting well for the future at 6-2 and 190 as a sophomore receiver and linebacker (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

— WR/DB Jewell, 5-10, 160, is the fastest player for the Lions who last week at Yuma Christian returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown. Thatcher (1-2) purposely punted and kicked away from Jewell all game.

Assistant coach Lamar Lovett, a former Arizona receiver whose son is Evan, was told in jest before Friday’s game to make sure those young players never leave.

“They’ll stick together and stay here because they are so close, like brothers,” Lamar said.

Sophomore Bryce Jewell is the fastest player on Pusch Ridge’s team (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Middleton is in his 33rd year of coaching, his first as a head coach. Although he’s been around for a while — including stardom as an Arizona Icecats player in the 1980s — he gets a charge out of coaching the abundance of youth on his team.

“I really like our energy and I like where our kids are at emotionally,” Middleton said. “They’re into it, so that’s nice.”

Middleton added that Pusch Ridge opened up its offense for the first time this season, spreading the ball with a balanced distribution of running and passing. To wit: Fontaine and Hallett nearly matched in Friday’s game their combined 30 pass attempts in the first two games.

Fontaine connected with Hallett on a 29-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-down play to open the scoring.

“Me and Hayden, we’ve been competing all summer, we love each other,” said Fontaine, who played quarterback in the first and third quarter and Hallett the other two.

“We always make each other better. He even caught one of my touchdown passes tonight, which is amazing. I love that connection; we’ve had it since JV. (The two-quarterback system) is a good way to switch it up, too. The defense can’t always key on one of us because we have different styles.”

Fontaine also plays on defense, a unit that forced Thatcher to turn the ball over five times (six including the turnover-on-downs). Pusch Ridge recovered four fumbles and had an interception.

E.J. McKenna, another junior, recovered a fumble and also had an interception return of 30 yards for a touchdown.

In a game of many standouts for Middleton, Rittenbach stood out from the rest.

His toughness, speed, moves and elusiveness after the catch was particularly impressive with a 43-yard score with 26.4 seconds left in the first quarter that put Pusch Ridge ahead 21-6. He broke free from six tacklers and received a block from Lovett that helped clear the last 15 yards for a burst to the end zone.

He also had a 51-yard catch-and-run play late in the third quarter in which he fumbled at the end but the ball rolled out of bounds at the Thatcher 2-yard line.

“Once he gets consistent and confident, he’s a game-breaker, he really is,” Middleton said of Rittenbach. “He has great speed, and great vision and great moves. The quarterback has to get him the ball and they did that tonight.

“He does things where you look back at it and go, ‘How did he do that?’ It’s just the tip of the iceberg with him. Once he learns to get consistent with everything he does in practice and pays attention to detail, he can be a great player.”

Pusch Ridge needs one more game to reach the qualifying number for the Class 3A state playoffs. The Lions play on the road the next two weeks against Safford (2-1) and San Tan Foothills (1-2) before returning home for the last two games against American Leadership Academy-Ironwood (0-3) and Florence (0-2).

That means Pusch Ridge’s remaining opponents are 3-8 with two of them winless.

The toughest test will be at Safford next week. The Bulldogs opened the season winning 14-12 against visiting Eagar Round Valley, the defending Class 2A state champions coached by former Arizona standout Marcus Bell. Round Valley switched to 3A this season.

“I think we have a lot of potential this year,” Rittenbach said. “Once we come together as a team, you’re going to see that we are going to do great things. Our coaching staff is hoping to unite us, and as the season goes on, hopefully we’re going to get better.”

Pusch Ridge has four games remaining in the regular season (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)


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.

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