No. 7 Willcox runs to 2A San Pedro title behind Pando & Fuentes in rout over No. 15 Tanque Verde

Tanque Verde coach Jay Dobyns and defensive coordinator John Williams know all about a running back playing like a man against boys.

They were on Salpointe’s staff when Bijan Robinson was overpowering defenses, making good defensive teams obsolete.

They described Willcox running backs Cristian Pando and Ayden Fuentes in the same vain Friday night after the duo rushed for 495 yards combined in the 55-6 win at Tanque Verde for the 2A San Pedro title and automatic bid into the state tournament.

“They are the real deal,” said Dobyns, a Sahuaro and Arizona wide receiver great. “Those two kids run the football like full-grown men.”

Williams added, “I threw everything at them. You know what I mean? They’re just very, very good football players.”

Williams is one of the most respected coaches among his peers in Southern Arizona.

Entering the game, Tanque Verde’s defense pitched four straight shutouts — not allowing a running back to gain more than 74 yards — as the No. 15 Hawks (5-5 overall, 4-1 2A San Pedro) outscored those opponents 239-0 to put themselves in position for a chance at the region title.

It took Pando less than 3 minutes to put seventh-rated Willcox (8-2, 5-0) on the board with his 40-yard touchdown run with 9:11 remaining in the first quarter.

He gained a career-high 342 yards on 30 carries with a career-best six touchdowns, including a 78-yard run in the third quarter in which he maneuvered through the line with his power and outran the secondary with his speed.

“We felt electrified from the first snap to the last snap,” Pando said. “We had a great showing out from Willcox today (the visitor seating section was packed). They just kept us rolling the whole game.”

Fuentes, a big-time baseball prospect whose dad Adrian Fuentes was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and now coaches Willcox’s baseball team, put the Cowboys ahead 34-0 with 14.3 seconds left in the first half with his 68-yard pick-6 as a linebacker.

The 6-foot and 185-pound younger Fuentes gained 153 yards on 14 carries with a touchdown.

He often lined up at quarterback and kept Tanque Verde’s defense guessing with well-orchestrated fake handoffs to Pando, opening holes for him to bust through with his keen vision, power and strength.

“Me and him have been playing sports since we were young and when we started playing football he was actually quarterback and I was running back,” Fuentes said of Pando. “We’ve always been in the backfield since probably about sixth, seventh grade. From there on out, we’ve always had that chemistry.

“It’s just been there every single time, just dominating.”

Pando and Fuentes have both eclipsed the 1,000-yard rushing mark, one of only two backfields in Arizona to achieve that feat through 11 weeks of the season. Arizona Lutheran Academy’s Rylan Bass (1,188 yards) and Gideon Enter (1,029) is the only other duo to rush for more than 1,000 yards.

Pando (5-10, 185) is the No. 3 running back in the state in 2A through 6A with 1,329 yards on 147 carries. He tops all backs with 26 rushing touchdowns.

Fuentes is No. 12 in the state with 1,170 rushing yards on 108 attempts with 15 touchdowns.

“It’s nice to have those two kids,” said Willcox coach Eric Hjalmarson (pronounced Halm-er-son). “They don’t come around very often.”

Hjalmarson shares a past with Tanque Verde assistant coach Scooter Sprotte from their days playing together at Lakeside Blue Ridge and Arizona. After playing at Eastern Arizona College, Hjlmarson walked on as a linebacker at Arizona in 1999, Sprotte’s senior year with the Wildcats.

Hjalmarson’s mother was on the field after the game talking with Sprotte. Their families have developed a long-lasting bond.

“We all grew up with each other,” Hjalmarson said.

The time that Hjalmarson has known Dobyns is brief, since Dobyns took over the downtrodden Tanque Verde program in 2020 — the same year Hjalmarson left Safford for Willcox.

“Jay, just being a U of A guy, getting to know him the last few years — he’s such a good dude,” Hjalmarson said. “I mean, he has my utmost respect.”

Dobyns and Williams have become similar to brothers since playing at Sahuaro and graduating from there in 1980. They have coached together the last three decades in youth football, at Salpointe and the last three years at Tanque Verde.

The two coaches and a star-studded staff that includes Sprotte and other Arizona standouts such as Jeff Kiewel, David Adams, Van Brandon and Chris Lopez and Dobyns’ son Jack are responsible for resurrecting the Hawks from 14-66 in the eight years prior to their arrival to 15-8 in the last three years.

Tanque Verde’s postseason fate is tenuous with its No. 15 rating and 16 teams comprising the field. The Hawks have never qualified for the playoffs in their 16-year history.

Region champions rated below the Hawks can leapfrog them into the state bracket similar to what happened last year when they finished No. 12 in the ratings but five region champs pushed them to 17th, one spot out of the playoffs.

Friday night could have been the last time Dobyns and Williams coached together this season and — who knows? — from here on out.

At season’s end, coaching changes always occur. You never know what the next season might bring.

“We love seeing each other every day,” Williams said. “We can mess with each other a little bit and it’s always good. There’s some people that you can’t but between the two of us … we get into each other’s garters a little bit, but it’s 30 seconds long and then it’s done. We vacation together.”

Dobyns chimed in joking, “When you finish each other’s sentences, it’s probably something dangerous. There’s something wrong.”

They later embraced, hugged their players and thanked the parents, making the 49-point loss secondary.

They left winners just like when they showed up.


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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