Defense dominant in No. 13 Sabino’s pivotal win over No. 11 Pusch Ridge

Sabino celebrates a much-needed win against Pusch Ridge (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

This was supposed to be one of those shootouts symbolic of offenses known for their potent passing games with rushing attacks providing balance in a 3A South showdown.

Instead of No. 13 Sabino and No. 11 Pusch Ridge each scoring in the 40’s, as was anticipated in the game of the year so far in Southern Arizona, they combined for 43 points in the Sabercats’ Homecoming game Friday night.

Sabino’s 27-16 victory over Pusch Ridge was won behind a defense that limited the Lions to 74 yards rushing and sacked prolific passing Ryan Fontaine four times while consistently hurrying him out of the pocket with an aggressive front seven.

“I was ready, I was on the go, we were all watching film, we all knew where we were supposed to be, everybody knew what their job was supposed to be and we all go to the ball,” senior linebacker Marius Lester said. “That’s the main thing they were struggling with. We got to the ball and we got to the quarterback.

“We already knew what the results were going to be.”

Sabino coach Ryan McBrayer, a former standout linebacker for Jay Campos who played in state title games in 2005 and 2006, knows how to play defense at a championship level.

McBrayer, 34-12 in his fifth year coaching his alma mater, also serves as the defensive coordinator.

He was faced with the challenge of trying to control a Pusch Ridge offense that was averaging 33 points and 367.8 total yards a game.

Pusch Ridge (5-2 overall, 1-1 in the 3A South) was limited to 203 total yards by the Sabercats (also 5-2 and 1-1).

Sabino’s front seven was formidable most of the night against Pusch Ridge (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

“I give all the credit to my staff — we sit on Saturday watching film and we dissect that, and on Sunday we’re meeting,” McBrayer said. “I’ve had the same guys with me the whole five-year tenure that I’ve had at Sabino. They don’t get interviewed … they don’t get their names in the papers, but I’ve got the best staff in the world. They put it together.”

For good measure, Sabino’s staff:

  • Head coach: McBrayer
  • Defensive coordinator: McBrayer
  • Offensive coordinator: Sly Lewis
  • Quarterbacks: Collin McBrayer
  • Running backs: Vern Cooke
  • Defensive tackles: Jon Jolls
  • Offensive line: Bahren Perez and Mike Brown
  • Secondary: Jason Welsh
  • Linebackers: Ryan Burnison
  • Quarterbacks/defensive ends: Eli Trainer
As is customary after games, Sabino’s players came to coach Ryan McBrayer for a fist-bump (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

McBrayer also listed his standouts on defense, trying not to leave anyone out.

“The athletes contained a great player like Fontaine — Mason Cade and JuJu Cordova as defensive ends (and linebackers) Marius Lester, Levi Miranda, Alex Lopez, Zach Tolson — guys just flying all over the field. That’s allowing our secondary Nezeyah Stubblefield, Dom Parsons, Kam Gambrell, Jalen Lewis and Isiah Aguirre just to kind of lock down and play with those receivers.

“Heck of a unit. It’s 11 guys and I’m very proud of each guy that we have.”

When Sabino mounted a 20-0 halftime lead with playmaking sophomore quarterback Cameron Hackworth keeping Pusch Ridge’s defense on its heels, the Sabercat defense limited Pusch Ridge to 5 yards rushing and 45 yards of total offense.

“Our defense, we had a game plan all week,” said Miranda, a senior transfer from Tucson High. “We saw the numbers. We saw a lot of threats but we came in with the mentality that we are the better guys on the field. We have the better players and I think tonight showed it. Our defense balled out, all 11 guys to the ball, all night long.

“We all played with a chip on our shoulder and I think tonight showed that tonight. Sabino’s defense made a big statement.”

That sizeable chip formed when Sabino was defeated 45-28 at Thatcher, allowing the Eagles to amass 491 total yards, in the Sabercats’ 3A South opener Sept. 17.

“These last weeks after getting our reality check over at Thatcher, we’ve got guys who bought in,” McBrayer said. “I think the sky’s the limit for the athletes that we have. As long as they keep playing for each other and have each other’s back, that’s what happens.”

Sabino was in a must-win situation against Pusch Ridge playing in the highly competitive 3A South that includes No. 7 Safford (6-1, 1-0) and No. 8 Thatcher (6-1, 2-0). A loss would have virtually eliminated the Sabercats from the hunt for an automatic state playoff berth as the region champion.

All four teams — Safford, Thatcher, Pusch Ridge and Sabino — still have a realistic chance for the 3A South title with each competing weekly.

Pusch Ridge must try to bounce back at Safford on Friday. The Lions then host Thatcher on Oct. 22, the same day Sabino hosts Safford. The regular season concludes Oct. 29 with Safford playing at Thatcher.

“It’s definitely a formidable situation that we’ve got,” Pusch Ridge coach Kent Middleton said of the 3A South gauntlet. “I think we can handle it one game at a time. You look at the overall, and you’re like, ‘Wow.’ But take it one week a time and things will work out.”

Sabino’s defense swarmed to the ball most of the game against Pusch Ridge (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Middleton’s team was in a formidable spot from the start Friday night after a three-and-out in Pusch Ridge’s first possession with the subsequent punt only going 7 yards to the Lions’ 33.

Sabino scored seven plays later on Hackworth’s 3-yard run to take a 7-0 lead with 7:34 left in the first quarter.

The Lions’ next possession resulted in another punt, and again, Hackworth engineered a scoring drive.

A nifty, quick runner who is also accurate with a strong arm, Hackworth had runs of 21 and 9 yards and completed a 13-yard pass to Aguirre in an eight-play drive that culminated on a 4-yard scoring pass to Gambrell with 2:13 left in the first quarter, giving Sabino a 13-0 lead.

Pusch Ridge’s defense, led by fierce tacklers Tyler Mustain and Will Way, was back on the field immediately after Aguirre intercepted a pass at the Sabino 36.

Hackworth proceeded to lead a 15-play drive that took 8:05 off the clock between the first and second quarters. He was 4 of 4 passing for 47 yards on the drive, including a 23-yard touchdown strike to Aguirre with 5:26 left in the half to increase the lead to 20-0.

Hackworth accounted for all four of Sabino’s touchdowns, throwing for two and rushing for two. He completed 15 of 19 passes for 138 yards and rushed 22 times for 57 yards, with his production alone almost equaling Pusch Ridge.

Sabino increased its lead to 27-0 with 8:07 left following Hackworth’s scrambling 9-yard run to the end zone. He completed all four of his pass attempts on the drive, including a 20-yard strike to Gambrell on a fourth-and-5 play at the Pusch Ridge 29.

Fontaine then came alive, completing six straight passes, including a 15-yard touchdown pass to Mustain with 4:01 left that cut the lead to 27-7. He finished 14 of 23 for 129 yards.

His 34-yard pass to Bubba Mustain –which was the only reception for Southern Arizona’s leader with 32 catches — set up Javier Grajeda’s 3-yard scoring run with 58.9 seconds left.

Pusch Ridge, trailing 27-16, tried to kick the ball short and catch Sabino off-guard, but the kick was fielded and the Sabercats went into victory formation.

Sly Lewis displays Sabino’s “Ball-Out Champion” belt (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. He became an educator five years ago and is presently a special education teacher at Gallego Fine Arts Intermediate in the Sunnyside Unified School District

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