No. 8 Marana defeats No. 25 Sunnyside in a pivotal 5A Sonoran game

Marana QB Elijah Joplin runs away from the oncoming rush by Sunnyside’s defenders (Lexie Fegan, Special to AllSportsTucson.com)

While his team was preparing in the locker room for the second half of a competitive game against visiting Sunnyside Friday night, Marana coach Phillip Steward was wearing a crown and a sash by the field celebrating his selection as the Staff Homecoming King for the second straight year.

Steward’s charisma with the Marana staff and student body made it all seem natural and not one to be frowned upon in the heat of a battle, ultimately won by the No. 8 Tigers 21-6 over No. 25 Sunnyside in a pivotal 5A Sonoran game.

Steward’s priority is his team, but along with that, he has an endearing allegiance to his school as also a special education teacher.


Through games of Nov. 10. * Region champion.
8 Marana*9-15-0512198W6
Flowing Wells3-72-3182285L1

His players feed off his youthful exuberance and they respect his football knowledge and background as a former linebacker at a Division I school (Houston) and in the NFL (with the Rams when they were in St. Louis).

“I keep telling them to stop voting for me; I want to be talking to my guys at halftime,” said a smiling Steward, 32, who is 13-4 in his second season as head coach at Marana (6-1, 2-0 5A Sonoran). “But the kids (the student body) love me. I love those kids.

“I’m watching these kids every day. I just try to touch each and every last one of them every time I see them. I thank those kids.”

Having senior quarterback and leader Elijah Joplin also makes it easier to break away briefly from the team at halftime and maintain a sense of purpose.

Joplin set the tone from the start against Sunnyside’s tough defense — one that achieved three straight shutouts in its previous three games — by engineering a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive in the game’s first possession.

Marana’s 21 points against the Blue Devils were 28 fewer than what the Tigers averaged entering the game.

A fake punt that included a 21-yard run for a first down by Jaelen Collins aided that drive that was capped by Joplin’s 30-yard run to the end zone with 6:28 left in the first quarter. It was the first touchdown Sunnyside allowed in 14 quarters, since the first half of a 17-0 loss at Canyon View on Sept. 23.

11. MARANA (5-5)

Head coach: Phillip Steward
Tigers compete in the 5A Southern. Bold are playoff games. Playoff games at 7 p.m.
8/25at SalpointeL1435
9/1at TucsonW437
9/8at HigleyL2429
9/15at Mountain ViewL3542
9/22Canyon del OroL2149
9/29at BuenaW550
10/6at SunnysideL617
10/20Desert ViewW498
10/27at Casa GrandeW429
11/9at ALA-Gilbert North

“We faced a lot of adversity during the week, and I’m just glad we overcame all of it and got the ‘W’ today,” said Joplin, who rushed nine times for 145 yards and completed 16 of 22 passes for 190 yards. “There was a bunch of stuff going on at school like Spirit Day, a lot of distractions and stuff.

“I’m glad we stayed focused.”

Sunnyside (4-3, 1-1) had its opportunities in the first half behind a diligent running game, twice driving to the Marana 29 but came up empty. One drive that was 10 plays finished with a turnover on downs and another that was 13 plays ended with a missed 45-yard field goal.

Jordan Barron, who plays much bigger than his size at 5-foot-6 and 165 pounds, had 98 of his 104 yards rushing in the first half. He carried the ball 20 times overall.

After the missed field goal with 1:30 left in the first half, Joplin completed a 70-yard touchdown pass to speedy and athletic Dezmen Roebuck, who ran the ball 55 yards after catching the quick release by Joplin in Steward’s read-pass option offense.

“I think that me and Elijah have a really good connection,” said Roebuck, who finished with four catches for 92 yards. “We knew that we needed to get the first down so … the safety moved back so I sat it down, caught the ball and just turned it upfield and scored.”

After the teams traded turnovers earlier in the third quarter — Marana’s Sam Brown recovering a fumble and Sunnyside’s Max Flores doing the same — the Blue Devils converted their only scoring drive that again consumed a lot of plays and plenty of time.

Deion Conde’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Cesar Alcantar with 11:46 remaining capped a 13-play, 85-yard drive that took 8:53 off the clock.

Sunnyside, which trailed 13-6, was unsuccessful on the onside kick but Paco Alvarez recovered a fumble three plays later at the Blue Devil 35 with 11:07 left.

The change in momentum did not last long.

Collins intercepted a pass on the following play, and on Marana’s second play of its possession, Joplin sprinted past the line and outran Sunnyside’s secondary 69 yards for the touchdown. A two-point conversion pass from Joplin to Brown gave Marana its 21-6 margin with 10:24 left.

Joplin surpassed his rushing total of the whole season in the game. He had only 108 yards rushing on 36 carries before Friday night.

“I’m not used to running the ball a whole lot,” said Joplin. “It was cool to be a runner today and also a passer. … I’m just used to having negative rushing yards so rushing over 100 yards is a good feeling.”

Joplin went so far as to say (in jest) that he’s faster than Roebuck, who already has received a scholarship offer from Arizona despite being only a sophomore.

“(Roebuck) always thinks he’s faster than me, but he’s not,” Joplin said. “I’m a little faster than him. I just want to put that on notice.”

Steward told Joplin to become more of a runner against Sunnyside to open up the potent Marana offense even more.

21. SUNNYSIDE (3-3, 1-0)

Head coach: Thomas Romack
Blue Devils compete in the 5A Southern. *Region game. Games at 7 p.m.
8/25at ApolloL, 28-30-10-0
9/1at Flowing WellsW, 28-101-10-0
9/8at Raymond S. KellisL, 21-71-20-0
9/15Mica Mountain*L, 35-71-30-0
9/22Nogales*W, 43-62-30-0
10/6Marana*W, 17-63-31-0
10/20at Casa Grande*------
11/3at Desert View*------

“Going into the game plan I told him, ‘I think they struggle against a running quarterback,'” Steward said. “I told him, ‘You might have to use your legs tonight and not your arm.’ He said, ‘Whatever’s going to get the win.’ He was able to use his legs, and as you’ve seen tonight — I don’t know where that speed came from — but tonight, he showcased his speed and a little of his arm.

“He led us to a victory, so I’m proud of him.”

Sunnyside’s next three possessions stalled in Marana territory — turnover on downs at the 30 with 7:49 left, an interception by Brown at the 5 with 1:40 remaining and another turnover on downs at the 38 with 23.9 seconds left.

The Blue Devils had five scoreless possessions overall end on Marana’s side of the field

“This is a big one — they were a 4-2 team and their two losses were to Phoenix teams (Cactus Shadows and Canyon View),” Brown said. “This is a big win. They are higher up in the rankings right now, so for us to win, it was awesome.”

Conde did not complete a pass in three attempts in the first half but was 9 of 17 for 103 yards and a touchdown after halftime.

The Blue Devils gained 188 yards on the ground on 46 carries.

Sunnyside is in the perilous situation of playing its last three games against teams presently ranked No. 40 or lower in the power ratings — No. 43 Cholla, No. 44 Nogales and No. 40 Flowing Wells. That adversely affects their climb to the top 16 spots in 5A to make the state playoffs. The Blue Devils could very well finish 7-3 and not make the playoffs.

Marana, looking at a potential 9-1 finish in the regular season, faces a similar situation to keep its top 8 ranking, which guarantees hosting a first-round game. The Tigers end with Flowing Wells, Cholla and No. 47 Rincon/University.

“We have to play who were scheduled against; nothing we can do about that (the opponent power ratings),” Steward said. “We just have to take care of business and hope everything else takes care of itself.”


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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