The Sonoran Sidewinders cruised through an electrifying first half and battled through some late adversity to secure the 47-28 victory over Arizona Christian University’s developmental team on Saturday night at the Santa Rita High School football field.
The win marks the first one for head coach Hal Reeser, who served as an offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Macalester College in Fergus Falls, Minn., for eight years before heading to Tucson to lead the Sidewinders.
“It feels outstanding,” Reeser said. ”It’s a lot of work involved. Im leaving what has always been safe and comfortable, which is being an assistant coach. I’ve been an assistant coach for a number of years and now that I’m head coach, I have to deal with everything that I never had to think about. But it’s been great.”
The Sidewinders are part of the Hohokam Junior College Football Association, which is comprised of teams with college-aged players attending junior colleges in person or online.
Rugged downhill running was the name of the game for the Sidewinders as it led a three running back rotation to wear down the ACU defense.
“When we started, I was thinking, ‘We couldn’t have a better collection of running backs than Brandon Barrios, Varney Larson and Ben Tikeri,’” Reeser said. ”Now it’s just fighting for touches. Really each one of them is a 1A back, but there’s only one football. I look forward to what we do as we establish our offensive line.”
The trio of running backs proved too much for the Firestorm to handle, as they combined for three touchdowns in the first half.
“We just had to push,” said Larson, a Mountain View graduate. ”It’s the mentality. We had to cut out the little mistakes and just head down and ball. But it wouldn’t work without our o-line.”
Tikeri scored two touchdowns in the game, one receiving and the other an 18-yard run.
Tikeri said the Sidewinders backfield was able to play so well because of its ”dog mentality”.
“Im trying to play for my brothers, my team, play for the man next to you.” he continued.
Barrios, a former Ironwood Ridge standout, set the tone for the Sidewinders by scoring early in the game and then facilitated more of a blocking role when it got later.
Barrios scored his first touchdown back in Tucson after spending some time out of state.
“It feels great,” Barrios said about playing in Tucson again. ”I’ve been up in South Dakota for two years, so it feel good to be back here in Arizona playing for the hometown team.”
Larson did not score but was the team’s workhorse, picking up those gritty yards and crucial first downs.
The constant rushing attack opened up plenty of opportunities for the passing game to get going.
“When you cycle in those three power house running back and you give (Ironwood Ridge grad) Tyler Haynie and our wide outs a lot of time, it opens up a lot of doors,” Barrios said. ” I’m proud of everybody and I’m of the o-line for getting there.”
Haynie threw two passing touchdowns and ran one in himself. Wide receiver/punt returner Dantae Watkins caught one of those touchdowns and ran a punt return back for a touchdown to put the game on ice.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Sidewinders forced constant pressure that resulted in many four and out conversions.
Defensive end Rashaud Armstrong, formerly of Buena, made huge plays when the team needed it the most.
Armstrong was a force in the ACU backfield and even caught an interception that resulted in an offensive touchdown.
Armstrong originally played wide receiver during his time at Buena but switched positions when the team was short on linemen.
Reeser says that Armstrong will be seen at the X (wide out) or Y (tight end) when injuries on the defensive line clear up.
Cornerback Jeryl Hemphill had himself a monstrous day as well, forcing a strip returned for a touchdown in the first half and intercepting a pass in the second.
The Sidewinders began their offensive onslaught early on in the game with a 5-yard Barrios touchdown run three minutes into the first quarter.
Hemphill then stripped the ball from an ACU wide receiver and took it 50 yards to the endzone for another first quarter touchdown.
The score was 13-0 following the extra point with 4:38 left in the first quarter.
ACU quickly marched down the field and scored a touchdown, making the game a little bit tighter at 13-7 with 2:08 left in the period.
The Sidewinders then went on a 21-0 scoring streak in the second quarter, beginning with an 18-yard screenpass for a touchdown by Tikeri.
The next touchdown came from another Haynie throw, this time to Watkins with 8:26 left in the half.
The final touchdown of the half came from Tikeri, this time finding the endzone on the ground. The long run boosted the Sidewinders’ lead to 34-7 with 4:50 remaining in the half.
The ACU Firestorm made things close with a 21-0 run of their own in the third quarter. With 2:23 to go, ACU was marching down the field when Armstrong made a momentum-turning interception at the Sidewinder 44-yard line.
The Sidewinders capitalized off of the turnover and converted it into a touchdown with 14:10 remaining.
Haynie rushed for the touchdown to widen the lead to 40-28 after a muffed extra-point attempt.
Both teams battled for field position from there, that is until Watkins would score again off of a punt return with 9:10 left in the game. After the extra point, the score became 47-28.
The Sidewinders would refuse to budge on defense for the remainder of the game and took home the win.
They will travel to Gilbert on Saturday to take on the Gila River Hawks.