No. 9 Cienega upsets eighth-ranked Verrado in first round of 5A Football Playoffs

(Brittany Bowyer Photo)

Friday night’s three-hour bus ride back to Tucson was a joyous one for the No. 9 Cienega Bobcats after upsetting the No. 8 Verrado Vipers 47-36 in the first round of the 5A playoffs. After starting the season off 1-3, the Bobcats plowed their way through the remainder of the season showing tremendous weekly growth. The win over Verrado extends Cienega’s current win streak to seven straight. 

“Each week these kids have fought to get better, whether it’s in the classroom, in the weight room, in the film room or on the field, they fought to get better,” head coach Justin Argraves said. “It’s just been a pure joy to watch them develop over the last ten weeks to where we’re at now.”

“I probably still will go home with tears, but happy tears,” senior Ritchie McCormack added.

It was a significant victory for the “Boys in Vail,” marking the Bobcats’ first playoff road win since 2016. For Argraves, in his first year with the program, the win also is a tribute to the hard work they’ve poured in. 

“The mental preparedness has been going on since we got hired back in February,” Argraves said. “Every week, they just fully bought in to our system, our demands and our expectations.”

“It’s a mindset,” McFarland said. “You’ve got to keep scrapping, you’ve got to keep fighting.”

In the first game of the season, Cienega struggled to find any sort of offensive momentum or flow to move the ball against the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs. It was an upsetting moment, but seemingly a motivating one, as Cienega returned looking like a completely new team. 

“We knew before the whole coaching staff left and came in, we knew we were going to be able to hang with the big dogs,” McCormack said. “Even though we started slow, we’ve been proving people wrong all year. We’ve been the underdogs, we haven’t been favored in a lot of games, but we’ve worked hard and made adjustments and are on the right path.”

Momentum started out in favor of the Bobcats early after the Vipers fumbled on the snap, losing the ball. Cienega was set up with prime field position around the Verrado 35-yard-line, where the Bobcats pounded the rock into the endzone to score first. 

Verrado was able to counter back with a touchdown of its own, followed up with a two-point conversion to take the early lead in the first. 

The Bobcats didn’t like the feeling of being behind, though, and came back out on the following drive to score. Junior quarterback Brayden Cherry was able to connect with sophomore Jimmy Diaz for a 38-yard touchdown pass. The extra point was good, giving Cienega the 14-8 lead with just under a minute left in the first. 

Eating away a ton of the clock, Verrado had a long drive resulting in a turnover on downs following strong red zone defense from Cienega. 

Taking over at their own 16, the Bobcats started chipping away at moving the ball down the field, relying heavily on junior Edgar Garcia. Switching it up, Cherry was able to connect with Keron Watson for a 10-yard touchdown pass with less than two minutes left in the half. The kick was good, making it 21-8.

Verrado, striking fast, was able to move the ball 75 yards on three passes to make it a one-touchdown game with only 56 seconds remaining in the half. The extra point was good, making it 21-15 with Cienega still leading. 

Following halftime, things started to get a little rocky for the Bobcats when Cherry threw a pick. It only took the vipers two snaps to score, with the dagger coming on a 56-yard touchdown pass to tie the game at 21. The extra point was good, giving Verrado the slight edge for the first time since the first quarter.  

The momentum started to shift, yet again, on Cienega’s following possession.

After running nearly seven minutes off the clock while slowly progressing down the field, Cienega capped off the drive with a three-yard touchdown run from senior Cole McFarland. The Bobcats attempted to go for two, but couldn’t convert. They did, however, regain a 27-22 lead with under two minutes left in the third. 

A quick three-and-out from Verrado put the ball back into Cienega’s hands and allowed the Bobcats decent field position for the following possession. Capping it off with a five-yard touchdown run from McCormack, Cienega extended the lead to 33-22 with 10:23 left to play.

“Defense did great tonight,” McFarland said. “Our offense had a short field several times, and any time the defense can give you a short field, it’s the offense’s job to cash in, and we did a great job of doing that tonight.” 

Ten minutes in football is nearly an eternity, and each team was gunning to close out the game strong. 

Despite the Vipers best efforts to cut the lead, Verrado ultimately ended up turning the ball over on downs following a huge sack by seniors Nolan Baker and Garrett Montgomery. Cienega took over at the Viper 42, using the field position to its advantage to extend the lead on another pass to Diaz. 

Bringing it within 10, Verrado was able to score on a 55-yard touchdown pass with just over four minutes remaining. After converting on the two-point attempt, it was 40-30 with Cienega still in front. 

Helping to seal the deal on the final possession, McCormack punched it in yet again to make it 46-30. The extra point was good, giving Cienega a 17-point cushion with under 90 seconds to go. 

The Vipers put up a last-ditch effort to remain in the game, putting up a final touchdown with 30 seconds remaining. It was too little too late, though, as the Bobcats were able to pull out the win. 

For both McCormack and McFarland, their performances in route to victory were clutch. Bumping off defenders and spinning out of tackles, the dynamic duo fought for every inch on the gridiron. 

“They’ve led this team off the field and on the field, just great, great, great young men,” Argraves said. “I was lucky to fall into a program that has two individuals like that.”

“I know we all want it,” McCormack said about coming out with a win. “They want it just as much as I do, so I didn’t want to go home tonight on a three hour bus ride with tears.”

Overall, it was a successful night for the Bobcats, who finished with more than 350 total offensive yards. Cherry completed 13 of his 20 pass attempts for approximately 175 yards. Meanwhile, the Bobcats had around 185 yards on the ground. Penalties were a problem for Cienega tonight, something Argraves said they’ll be addressing this week. 

“Flag wise, it was ugly. We’ve got to do a better job of just focusing on the now and not worrying about all the outside stuff,” Argraves said. “Playing a little bit more disciplined, you know, for a lot of these guys it was their first playoff game. They didn’t quite know what to expect coming into it, so it’s something we’ll address tomorrow at film, and it’s something we addressed at halftime.”

Next week, the Bobcats will hit the road once again to take on the top-ranked Horizon Huskies in the Quarterfinals. While the time to bask in the success is slim, it’s still a great feeling leading up to the short holiday week. 

“To do what we did tonight, I couldn’t be more proud of these young men,” Argraves said. “I’m ecstatic for them, it’s just a great feeling. We said we were gonna work all year for a second season and we’re there now.”

“We’re gonna celebrate on the bus ride home, we’re gonna be happy in the locker room, but starting tomorrow it’s Horizon time,” McCormack said. 

Brittany Bowyer is a freelance journalist who started her career as an intern for a small sports website back in 2015. Since then, she’s obtained her master’s degree in Sports Journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU and is in her fourth year of covering various levels of sports across a broad range of platforms in Arizona. You can follow her on twitter @bbowyer07

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