Thatcher won its fourth straight, defeating region rival Pusch Ridge 16-10 on the road Friday night to remain atop the 3A South.
The Eagles — who lost junior starting quarterback Brett Jones to injury in the first quarter with the game tied at 7-7 — ground out a gritty win behind a solid performance from junior quarterback Paxton Echols and their defense, which limited Pusch Ridge senior quarterback Bubba Mustain all evening.
Thatcher head coach Daniel Jones credited Pusch Ridge head coach Kent Middleton and his coaching staff and praised Echols for coming off the bench and leading the Eagles to victory.
“It was a great battle back and forth. Kent (Middleton) and his staff are amazing. They played incredible football,” Jones said. “We knew it was going to be a toe to toe battle. When Brett went down, we didn’t know what we were going to do, but Paxson (Echols) jumped in and put the load on his shoulders, and he played well. He did really well. So we’re excited about that.”
Echols acknowledged that coming off the bench to face the Pusch Ridge defense was no easy task.
“It was a good team, it was really hard,” he said. “I’ve taken a lot of reps at practice. We’ve gone through a lot of things, and I just felt comfortable out there.”
His 10-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Patrick Nickolas late in the first half put the Eagles up 14-7.
Thatcher (6-3, 3-0) went 13-1 last season, losing its lone game to Eastmark in the 3A state championship game.
The Eagles started this season 2-3.
Jones believes early losses to Surprise Paradise Honors, Chandler Valley Christian (respectively ranked No. 2 and No. 4 in 3A Arizona) and Yuma Catholic (No. 2 in 4A Arizona and No. 23 overall in Arizona) helped spur the four-game winning streak for the Eagles, who rely heavily on underclassmen.
“It was just kind of navigating that and getting on the same page,” Jones said. “We’re really young. Most of these kids are juniors and sophomores, with a couple of seniors sprinkled in, so it was just getting everybody seasoned. That just took some time.”
Sophomore lineman Cooper Peck — who had two sacks against Puch Ridge (6-3, 0-3) on Friday night — agrees with his coach.
He also believes Thatcher’s three losses earlier in the season brought the offensive and defensive lines closer.
“It really kind of kicked us in the butt,” Peck said. “It got us going, and we had to really come together as a team and work on what we needed to, and our line really came together. We’re building more of a brotherhood. So we want to play for each other. I feel like that was the biggest part, is we wanted to win for each other, and that’s what made us a better team. So look out for us.”
As for the Eagles getting to the 3A state championship game in back-to-back seasons, Jones is planning on it.
“We’ve got to retool a couple things on offense and work a little bit more to our practice strengths,” he said. “Our defense played well and (we will) just keep doing what Thatcher does and just hit the hammer, so we’re gonna try to keep doing that.”
Thatcher plays at home against Morenci (6-2, 2-1) on Friday. Pusch Ridge plays at Safford (4-5, 1-2) on Friday. Both games start at 7 p.m. Tucson time.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writer Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. Murphy is a journalist product manager with the Green Valley News & the Sahuarita Sun. He has a bachelor’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU.