Cienega continues dramatic turnaround in Argraves’ first season earning region title

Nobody outside of Cienega’s program a month into the season thought the Bobcats would be in the position they are now.

Justin Argraves was doused in water from the Gatorade cooler by his players Friday night in celebration of a 5A Sonoran title following five straight wins, including statement victories of 34-0 at Sunnyside last week and 42-14 at Marana on Friday.

Argraves’ first season at Cienega after a successful 10-year run at Tucson High started with a 49-6 season-opening loss at Sunrise Mountain in Peoria and a 1-3 record heading into an Oct. 8 game at Marana Mountain View.

“That was tough,” senior Ritchie McCormack said of the 1-3 start, “but I think it shows we’re getting molded to the system.”

Cienega first-year coach Justin Argraves is 63-53 in his 12th season as a head coach (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

The turning point toward a 7-3 overall record and 5-0 mark in the 5A Sonoran goes to the fourth quarter of the home game against Salpointe on a Thursday night (Sept. 16) with only three days to prepare for the perennial power.

The Bobcats were down 30-7 with less than 10 minutes remaining before junior quarterback Brayden Cherry, in only his third varsity game at the time, engineered two scoring possessions via the pass. A Salpointe interception in the end zone in the waning seconds turned back the Bobcats and preserved the 30-22 win for the Lancers.

“The Salpointe game, the second half, we grew up a lot,” Argraves said. “We went into a bye week and then we had Campo (Verde) and we play a good game there and end up losing in the last seconds (23-21 on Oct. 1).

“We lost both of those games (Salpointe and Campo Verde) on the last possession … We were 1-3. That just shows the type of resiliency these young men have to win five in a row. It’s been a fun ride. Stressful at times. But just to see their faces … kudos to our kids.”

Cienega lineman Garrett Montgomery (56) and the Bobcats celebrate the 5A Sonoran title (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Almost a year ago, on Nov. 20, 2020, Argraves coached his last game at Tucson High in a 32-27 loss against Marana at Gridley Stadium.

It capped a decade with the Badgers in which he was 53-43 with four postseason appearances — an accomplishment magnified with the challenge more steep at the TUSD school than what he is experiencing now in the Vail School District.

Case in point: Argraves has line coaches and secondary coaches — even a kicking coach — with the Bobcats whereas one coach would handle those responsibilities with the Badgers because of budgetary restrictions.

He took on the difficult task of replacing Pat Nugent at Cienega after one of the program’s best senior classes, consisting of 14 talented players, went on to play in college.

“I was just thinking new coach, a lot of our teammates, some of them did not play last year … we had to get in a rhythm to learn each other and trust each other,” senior linebacker Ethan Schockmel said of the turbulent yet galvanizing first month of the season.

“We started clicking more and more and we came together as a team. We’re still getting better.”

Schockmel had two sacks of prolific passing Marana quarterback Elijah Joplin, who was pressured out of the pocket most of the night. He was sacked eight times which led to the Tigers gaining only 20 yards rushing on 27 attempts.

Cienega’s defense set the tone from the first offensive play of the game with Jimmy Diaz stepping in front of an attempted screen pass and returning the interception 35 yards for the score. That sparked the Bobcats to 28 points in the first quarter.

It was one of three interceptions for Cienega with Gunnar Hernandez returning another for 30 yards for a touchdown with 1:08 left in the third quarter to give the Bobcats a 35-14 lead.

Joplin, an Ed Doherty Award nominee as a junior, completed 28 of 41 passes for 284 yards but was 7 of 13 for only 41 yards in the second half after Cienega built a 28-14 lead.

“Tonight, we came out flat and Cienega they came out ready to go to war and it showed,” said Marana first-year coach Phillip Steward, whose team is 7-2 overall and 3-1 in the 5A Sonoran heading into another anticipated showdown Friday with visiting Ironwood Ridge, which is 5-4 and 3-1 and on a three-game winning streak.

“We’re in a good position. (Cienega) humbled us right before Senior Night (against Ironwood Ridge). We had a lot of emotions. We do have Senior Night. It’s getting close to that end. … We’ll go back to the drawing board. We’ll meet in the morning and go over the film.”

Marana struck back following the opening pick-6 by Diaz by going 80 yards on nine plays, capped by Joplin’s 15-yard scoring strike to freshman Dezmen Roebuck with 8:46 left in the first quarter. Roebuck, a star of the future, finished with nine receptions for 65 yards.

Cienega then went to primarily its running game to take control of the game’s tempo.

McCormack, who finished with 104 yards on 11 carries, accounted for all five offensive plays — all of them runs — for 68 yards, capped by a 31-yard scoring run to put Cienega ahead 14-7 with 6:00 left in the first quarter.

After a three-and-out for Marana, Cherry completed a 12-yard pass to Hernandez before junior Edgar Garcia busted free for a 38-yard touchdown run with 4:49 left in the opening quarter to increase the lead to 20-7.

Garcia finished with 11 carries for a career-high 99 yards, including a 3-yard scoring run in the fourth quarter after he rushed eight times for 58 yards in that possession. That was a significant boost for Cienega after Cole McFarland left the game with an ankle injury in the third quarter after gaining 39 yards on nine carries.

Cienega finished with 228 yards rushing.

“Usually it’s me and Cole (splitting the carries) but Edgar stepped up big tonight,” McCormack said. “He’s played really big lately. We’re three different runners. I’ll wear them out with my power. Cole gets in and he can hit the outside and Edgar’s a little slippery fellow.

“They have three people to look after.”

Brady Beltz had an interception to stop Marana’s next possession and Cherry followed on the very next play with a 35-yard touchdown pass to Beltz to increase the lead to 28-7 with 3:33 left in the first quarter.

Marana cut the lead to 28-14 with 6:30 left in the second quarter on Joplin’s 4-yard run, but the Tigers did not cash in at the end of the half after reaching the Bobcat 10-yard line.

A potential touchdown catch by Sam Brown was called back because of an illegal block and Joplin’s pass into the end zone on the last play of 33 yards fell incomplete.

Marana rallied from a three-touchdown deficit in the fourth quarter against Sunnyside for a win last month, but that magic did no happen again.

Garcia’s eight rushes, the only plays called by Argraves in that possession, resulted in his 3-yard score with 6:40 left, putting the game out of reach at 42-14.

Cienega, ranked No. 10 in the 5A, does not have a game scheduled Friday after Rincon/University forfeited because of a lack of healthy players. The win over Marana may move Cienega into the top 8 which gives the Bobcats a realistic chance to host an opening game in the 5A state playoffs in two weeks.

Who would have thought that to be a scenario after September?

“You have to have high expectations no matter what,” Argraves said. “The kids had high expectations. I had high expectations. It was a tough task coming off a covid year, then a coaching change and them losing so many quality seniors from last year.

“These young men — what has it been close to 10 months now I’ve been hired? — they have poured everything into this program. To see their success tonight, coming out with a region championship, it’s pretty special. It means a lot.”


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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