2023 High School Football

Cholla’s defense, fullback Francisco Mendivil overpower Copper Canyon 7-0 in opener

Cholla’s Francisco Mendivil scored the lone touchdown in the Chargers’ 7-0 season-opening win over Copper Canyon (Javier Morales/AllSportsTucson.com)

Cholla junior fullback, linebacker and defensive end Francisco Mendivil stood alone as if he wanted to savor this one a little more Thursday night at the north end zone of Ed Brown Stadium while his exuberant teammates ran off the field toward the locker room.

He was drenching with sweat after he removed his shoulder pads. He appeared to be exhausted but also exhilarated with his contribution to the victory.

Mendivil’s relentless running and the Chargers’ defense just held off Copper Canyon after repeated threats by the Aztecs, pitching a shutout, 7-0, in the season opener for both teams as part of the Coaches for Charity event.

Now 1-0 for only the fifth time out of the last 20 years, Cholla must try to keep this winning feeling going.

Only twice before since 2002 have the Chargers started 2-0.

They play at Phoenix Maryvale next Friday.

“After last year (when Cholla finished 2-8), I wasn’t happy,” said six-year coach Virgil Henderson. “I looked at myself and said, ‘I have to do a better job.’ My whole attitude — I came in with the tough love. We were hitting the weight room. We were running. Summer was just horrible for my kids.

“My main focus was getting stronger, getting bigger and getting tougher. … Brick by brick, brick by brick, brick by brick … The kids feel for it and loved the process, man.”

Henderson knows how to win at Cholla, a school long beset by low turnout, eligibility concerns and injuries.

In his first stint with Cholla in 2014 and 2015, the Chargers finished 6-4 in 2015, their first winning season after going 5-35 the previous four years. He left Cholla to be an assistant under Matt Johnson at Ironwood Ridge and Mountain View before returning to the Chargers before the COVID-19-impacted 2020 season.

Henderson also coached previously under Dennis Bene at Salpointe after he was part of Richard Sanchez’s staff when Sunnyside won state titles in the early 2000s.

Cholla was 4-16 since Henderson’s return to Cholla entering this season.

“They don’t like (the tough workouts), but now they understand,” Henderson said. “It’s Cholla, everything we’re going to do is going to be tough. It’s not going to be we’re going to come in here and blow kids out. It’s not going to happen.

“We’ve got to grind. We’ve got to fight all four quarters.”

Mendivil and his teammates are accepting of Henderson’s demands, a noticeable shift toward a more robust mentality at Cholla.

“I hate it but we’ve got to condition,” said Mendivil, a junior, with a slight laugh. “We have to get better at staying on the field because I was gassed. I was gassed out there.

“I’m a big boy and I was running.”

Two of the biggest runs in the game belonged to Mendivil, who played with the Tucson Redskins, Southwest Rams and Tucson Scorpions during his youth football days dating to when he was 5. He has played with Cholla’s varsity team since he was a freshman.

Faced with a fourth-and-2 situation at the Copper Canyon 47, Cholla gave the ball to Mendivil, whose first official run in the game went for 15 yards with 8:08 left in the second quarter. The run in which the 5-foot-10 and 195-pound Mendivil carried tacklers with him, was Cholla’s initial first down of the game.

Mendivil finished with 78 yards on 14 carries, but all he could think about was improving on his mistakes, a sign in which Henderson has changed the mentality of the Chargers to not rest on their laurels.

“I feel like I could have done better; I fumbled I think like four times,” said Mendivil, who recovered three of those fumbles but turned to ball over once deep in Cholla’s territory early in the fourth quarter.

Following his 15-yard run and another 10-yard run by Mendivil, Alejandro Manriquez had a 16-yard run, Cholla had first-and-goal at the Copper Canyon 6.

Hector Anaya’s run took the ball to the 2. Following a defensive encroachment penalty, Mendivil scored from a yard on a run with 6:30 left until halftime.

That 73-yard, nine-play scoring drive happened after Cholla thwarted Copper Canyon’s threat when the Apaches had first down at the Cholla 19 following a fumbled punt return by the Chargers.

After a 10-yard sack by Manriquez and Charles Apalategui, Copper Canyon turned the ball over on downs.

Cholla had three sacks as part of eight tackles for loss and limited Copper Canyon’s offense to only 166 yards on 49 plays.

Mendivil’s fumble at the Cholla 21 with 11:02 left in the game occurred after Francisco Morales intercepted a pass in the end zone almost a minute prior after Copper Canyon moved the ball to the Charger 21.

The Aztecs appeared as if they were finally going to score their first touchdown with a first-and-goal situation at the 8-yard line following Mendivil’s fumble.

Three straight runs took the ball to the Cholla 1.

Nolan Huizar, Copper Canyon’s quarterback, tried to score on a bootleg on fourth down but Uzi Sotelo and Alex Alegria pulled him down short of the goal line with 7:09 left.

Two possessions later, Cholla punted at the Copper Canyon 36 with 20 seconds remaining. Markeese Wright found an open space near the sideline and returned the punt 60 yards to the Cholla 25 with 13.6 seconds left.

After an illegal motion penalty on the Aztecs, Sotelo intercepted a pass to end the nail-biter and send Cholla’s players and coaches into a frenzy.

“It’s a good thing coming back to school (Friday) knowing we got a victory,” Henderson said. “Unfortunately, it’s negative all the time, sometimes. My boys, they know it. They take on the challenge.

“That’s what I love about this team, they don’t quit.”

A motivational speech by Arizona and NFL lineman great Glenn Parker delivered to the Chargers as part of the Coaches for Charity event could only help.

“You don’t know how long this is going to last; love it, enjoy it and play with passion, play with fire,” Parker told the Chargers. “Play like it’s your last game, because it’s going to be someday, I promise you. It’s going to end at some point. So go love it, man.

“I’m proud of you guys. You’re doing something that’s a really hard thing to do at your age. You’re out here and you’re bonding. This is what it’s all about. These are friends you’re going to know your whole life and love … now get out there and compete and play hard.”


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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