Walden Grove 4A Gila champs after late fourth-down conversion in own territory

Walden Grove coach Corey Noble addresses his team while an assist shows his approval of the Red Wolves’ performance in the 34-27 victory over Catalina Foothills (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Only 3:07 remained and Walden Grove was ahead by a touchdown against visiting Catalina Foothills with possession on its 43-yard line.

It was fourth down-and-3 yards to go.

The 4A Gila championship and possibility to make the 16-team playoff field was on the line.

Walden Grove coach Corey Noble claims he did not think twice about going for it. His players did not have to talk him into it.

“It was a go all the way,” Walden Grove sophomore running back Robert Cash III said.

“We had to do what we had to do – big-boy football,” junior quarterback Gabriel Smith said.

A knee injury suffered by punter Paul Guy in the first quarter factored into the decision.

“Without our punter in the game — we’re here to win,” Noble said.

Cash took the handoff, juked to his left slightly, found a crease behind sophomore left guard Austin Pahler and pulling senior right guard Elliot Johnson and busted free up the middle for a 17-yard gain.

“I was just like, ‘Hold the ball please,'” Smith said. “He executed and that’s what won us the game. That’s so great.”

Walden Grove ran out the clock from there, managing a first down on a 21-yard end-around play on third down by Jahme Dawson, and claimed the 4A Gila title with the 34-27 victory.

“I probably have too much faith in our defense even giving them a short field that they’re going to get that stop, but we’re playing to win,” Noble said. “We’re not playing not to lose. We were going to go for it and put it on the table.”

Cash rushed for 135 yards on 24 carries, none bigger than that 17-yard run.

He became more of a focal point for the Walden Grove offense in the second half with 97 yards on 17 carries with both teams trying to establish ball control following a 20-20 tie at halftime.

“The coaches trusted me and I’ve been working hard all game so I had faith I was going to get it,” Cash said about cashing in on the fourth-down conversion.

When asked what he thought about as the play progressed, Cash said, “Excitement really, just the thrill. I’m out here working for the seniors. I love my boys. I don’t want this to be the last game and we got it done.”

The Red Wolves (8-2, 5-0 4A Gila) got it done in terms of capturing Noble’s third region title in his six years as head coach. They won their seventh-straight game and beat a Catalina Foothills team that was on a four-game winning streak under second-year coach Daniel Sainz.

It is to be determined Saturday morning if Walden Grove — rated No. 17 among 4A teams entering the game — got it done in terms of making the 16-team state-playoff field when the bracket is released.

The region champion does not automatically qualify for the state playoffs. The field is based on a power-rating system.

“We’ve done everything we can at this point,” Noble said. “Our boys got the win tonight, a great win against a great Cat Foot team, back-and-forth. We did what we could control. I sure hope it’s enough.”

The “back-and-forth” started in the first half after Walden Grove built a 20-6 lead after Smith engineered touchdown drives on the Red Wolves’ first three possessions.

Caleb Lyden capped an 11-play drive in the game’s first possession with a 1-yard touchdown run.

After Catalina Foothills’ running-back stalwart Samuel Delgado ran for a 46-yard touchdown, Smith connected on a 26-yard touchdown pass to Sebastian Najar to put the Red Wolves ahead 13-6. That score was set up by Guy’s 44-yard kickoff return.

Catalina Foothills was forced to punt, providing Smith the opportunity to complete a 47-yard touchdown pass to Guy, whose knee planted awkwardly in the end zone while being tackled.

Guy, the leading receiver in Southern Arizona entering the game with 58 catches for 946 yards, was grimacing in pain and did not return after that touchdown which put Walden Grove ahead 20-6 with 1:08 left in the first quarter.

Catalina Foothills answered with a 9-yard touchdown run by Delgado on the next possession.

The Falcons’ defense later stopped Walden Grove on downs at the Catalina Foothills 18 with 2:32 left in the half.

They promptly went downfield in 11 plays, culminating with a 6-yard touchdown pass from Troy Sanders to Tyler Tellam with 19 seconds remaining to tie the game at 20.

“It was great to see the kids answer to that,” Sainz said after trailing by two touchdowns. “In any other situation, before I got here in my first year, those would have been backbreaking plays. To see them battle back, grab the tie and get the lead … it just didn’t go our way tonight.”

Playing on a sore ankle, Delgado put Catalina Foothills ahead 27-20 with 10:41 left in the third quarter on an 11-yard touchdown run.

Delgado, the reigning APS Digital Print/Frog & Firkin Player of the Week for his 240-yard performance in a win over Sahuaro, finished with 210 yards on 30 carries.

“What an absolute man,” Sainz said. “He powered through and gave me every ounce that he had. I couldn’t ask for anything more.”

After not scoring in three straight possessions, Walden Grove’s offense finally awoke behind the running of Cash and prolific-pass Smith.

In the possession after Catalina Foothills took the 27-20 lead, Cash rushed five times for 24 yards and Smith completed three passes for 34 yards, capped by his 18-yard strike to Lyden to tie the game with 6:40 left in the third quarter.

The next three possessions of the game ended with punts before Walden Grove put together the game-winning drive at the start of the fourth quarter.

Cash had four carries for 45 yards in that drive, which ended with Smith’s 38-yard touchdown pass to Dawson, who made a spectacular diving catch in the end zone. That made the score 34-27 with 9:16 left.

“We needed it, man; we needed to make a big play,” said Smith, who completed 17 of 27 pass attempts for 248 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. “Jahme finished it for me. I kind of overthrew it to him a little bit, but hey, that man’s fast. I love that guy. I’m proud of us.”

Catalina Foothills drove the ball to the Walden Grove 38-yard line behind seven straight carries by Delgado that totaled 22 yards. On a fourth-and-three play at the 39, the Falcons’ Xavier Norwood-Ramirez was stopped for a 2-yard gain giving Walden Grove the possession with 3:53 left.

That led to the Red Wolves’ conversion on fourth down with Cash’s 17-yard run.

“I hope, big-time,” Smith said when asked if he believes the Red Wolves will make the playoff field. “I want to take the seniors to the first playoff round for them. It’s big.”


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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