Pusch Ridge came up short after a late-game comeback effort, losing at home to Thatcher 35-27 in the opening round of the 3A state playoffs and putting an end to their season on Friday night.
The Lions had defeated Thatcher 41-17 just two weeks ago but couldn’t find enough answers to Thatcher’s potent attack on the ground led by senior Josh Magnum and junior Ayden Bingham.
With 1:36 left in the game, Pusch Ridge senior quarterback Ryan Fontaine connected with senior Hayden Hallett on a 9-yard touchdown pass before finding sophomore Bubba Mustain in the end zone on the 2-point conversion attempt that followed to make it a one-possession game at 35-27.
The Lions failed to recover the onside kick that followed, and Thatcher went on to run out the clock and put an end to the season for Pusch Ridge.
On the game’s first possession, Pusch Ridge junior linebacker Abraham Grajeda recovered an errant snap on Thatcher’s 15-yard line. Fontaine would scramble for a rushing touchdown on the next play to put the Lions up 7-0.
Pusch Ridge held its biggest lead of the game when junior kicker Isaiah Peyton kicked a 29-yard field goal late in the first quarter to put Pusch Ridge up 10-0.
But in the second quarter, the running game for Thatcher found life when Bingham scored on a goal line rushing attempt followed by a 45-yard touchdown run from Mangum to put the Eagles up 12-10 over Pusch Ridge at halftime.(Thatcher missed a PAT and failed on a 2-point conversion attempt)
Pusch Ridge would strike first in the second half when Peyton kicked a 34-yard field goal to put the Lions up 13-12 on Thatcher. The one-point lead would be the last lead of the game for Pusch Ridge.
Thatcher would take back the lead on a field goal with under a minute remaining in the third quarter.
Pusch Ridge was stalled by Thatcher’s defense and forced to punt on the ensuing drive, and the next three possessions would ultimately change the course of the game.
A 44-yard rushing touchdown from Bingham put Thatcher up 22-13. Thatcher’s Slade Shupe intercepted Fontaine on the ensuing possession, and Mangum scored an 11-yard rushing touchdown soon after to put Thatcher up 29-13 with just over 5 minutes remaining in the game.
Fontaine scored a touchdown on a goal line run after quickly marching Pusch Ridge down the field, but after Lions could not convert the 2-point conversion they found themselves down 29-19.
On the first play of the next possession, Mangum broke free and scored a touchdown on a 53-yard run. Thatcher would miss the PAT that followed, going up 35-19 and keeping the door open for a late-game comeback for Pusch Ridge that ultimately fell short.
In customary Pusch Ridge fashion, both teams met at the 50-yard line to pray together after the game. After consoling his heartbroken team and taking a good deal of time to embrace every player who came up to him, Pusch Ridge head coach Kent Middleton reflected on how much the seniors mean to him.
“You even hate to say the two words: good bye, but our seniors have been everything for this program,” Middleton said. “A great bunch of football players, great bunch of young men. Some of them are going to go on and play at the next level. It’s heart-rending to lose them because they’re just wonderful kids and great people.”
Thatcher moves on to play at Snowflake next Friday in the quarterfinals of the 3A state playoffs. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. He is currently attending Pima Community College where he writes for the Aztec Press. Next semester he will be attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he will work towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.