2023 High School Football

HS FOOTBALL NOTEBOOK: Night of notable wins for Southern Arizona playoff contenders

Mica Mountain defensive end Jimmy Leon with one of his three sacks in the win over Walden Grove (D’Andre Davis/Special to AllSportsTucson.com)

Friday night bore witness that Southern Arizona high school football is as healthy as it has been since a decade or two ago when Salpointe annually competed for a state title under coach Dennis Bene, Pusch Ridge won a state championship and CDO was dominating with Ka’Deem Carey and Blake Martinez. … Salpointe improved to 8-1 with an impressive 21-14 win over Scottsdale Saguaro, which is 4-5 overall but entered the game No. 11 among 6A teams because of its arduous schedule. … Sabino, the No. 7 team in 3A, outlasted top-rated Mohave, giving the Thunderbirds their first loss of the season. … CDO, the No. 2 team in 4A, and Mica Mountain, No. 4, continued to roll with victories over Sahuaro and No. 10 Walden Grove, respectively. … No. 9 Morenci, in its first year at the 3A level under coach Rishard Davis, a former Arizona walk-on, captured the title of one of the most competitive regions in all of the state — the 3A South — with an impressive 21-14 win at No. 4 Thatcher. …

High school football is alive and … getting there. Not quite at “well” because certain regions in Southern Arizona have their struggling programs. However, even within those regions, genuinely good 4A Gila stories have developed such as Amphi under longtime coach Jorge Mendivil finishing its regular season 7-3 after going 2-8 last season, Empire at 5-4 under George Kelly with a four-game winning streak after starting 1-4 and Douglas under former Arizona lineman Hunter Long also at 5-4 after winning four of its last five games. The five wins, which assures a non-losing season, are the most for Long in his fifth season at his alma mater. … Most of the top 5A Southern and 5A Sonoran programs have experienced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seasons. No. 10 Ironwood Ridge suffered its first major setback Friday losing 21-14 at No. 36 Maricopa, but nothing can really take away from the Nighthawks’ turnaround from a 1-9 season to a 7-2 record presently. … Marana has routed highly-rated opponents Buena (7-2) and Casa Grande (6-3) on the road by scores of 55-0 and 42-9, respectively, but have struggled in losses to Mountain View at home and Sunnyside on the road. Each of those teams are 4-5. … Tucson’s late turnaround under first-year coach Zach Neveleff with three consecutive wins has the Badgers in position to avoid a losing season. …

Tanque Verde rivals Ironwood Ridge as the Story of the Year in terms of teams exceeding expectations. The No. 7 Hawks finished with a school-record eight wins (8-2 record) in the regular season despite a coaching transition from the popular and effervescent Jay Dobyns to the strategist Jeff Bollnow, who is in his first year as a head coach after serving as defensive coordinator at Cienega and Sahuarita in recent years. The Hawks’ defense has allowed these point totals to opponents since losing 48-7 at San Tan Charter in Week 2 — 0, 6, 0, 0, 7, 8, 3 and 6. That’s a total of 30 points allowed over the last eight weeks. Phenomenal. Gavin Gilbert, an 1,000-yard rusher this season, is also the top big-school tackler with 98, including an incredible 25 tackles for loss. He should be a contender for 2A state player of the year. … And how about the job Eric Hjalmarson, another former Arizona walk-on like Davis and Long, has done this season at Willcox? Hjalmarson lost the two-headed monster of Cristian Pando and Ayden Fuentes — both of whom rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season — and things looked bleak when the Cowboys started 0-3 while allowing an average of 41.7 points in those games. Since then, Willcox is 6-1 while giving up only 47 points in all of those games. The Cowboys’ four-game winning streak to end the season earned them the 2A San Pedro title. …

Mica Mountain honored its 26 seniors — its first four-year class in the school’s brief history — before its last regular-season home game against Walden Grove on Friday. The Thunderbolts’ 21-7 win featured two goal-line stands led by defensive ends Jimmy Leon and Jayson Criswell and tackle George Flores. The front seven and impeccable coverage by the defensive backs resulted in seven sacks, three of them by Leon, who now has 15 this season. … The defensive pressure offset a pick-6 by Walden Grove linebacker Carlos Montoya Jr. and an interception in the end zone by Red Wolves safety Enzo Morales. … Mica Mountain held Walden Grove to 18 yards rushing on 28 attempts and 119 yards overall. … “Physicality, playing our hearts out, our whole D-line,” Leon said. “Our DBs put their faith in us and we put our faith in the DBs. That’s what we do as a family here at Mica.” … Pat Nugent’s team is 8-1 in its third year of varsity existence. The Thunderbolts end their regular season Friday at Catalina Foothills, which upset Mica Mountain last season, a loss that potentially kept the Thunderbolts out of the 4A state playoffs. Nugent brought up that loss and the realization that Mica Mountain can be rated in the top four in 4A and play at least the first two rounds of the state playoffs at home as motivation going into the game against the Falcons. “We’ve got to get next week and let the rankings figure out how that all works and get ready to play a game,” Nugent said. … His standout running back/linebacker Kason Colbert is out indefinitely as a protective measure for a recent concussion. Colbert likely will not play until perhaps the Thunderbolts’ first playoff game. In the interim, running back Conner Hangartner has demonstrated he can be productive in Colbert’s absence. Hangartner rushed for 63 yards on 15 carries with a touchdown and he caught a 45-yard pass from Jayden Thoreson in the win over Walden Grove. … The turning point in the game was after Mica Mountain’s second goal-line stand of the game, stopping Walden Grove at the 2-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter. Mica Mountain proceeded to go 98 yards in 13 plays for a touchdown that put it ahead 21-7 with 5:40 left. Hangartner had 41 yards rushing on six carries in that drive, including the 3-yard touchdown run. “I couldn’t do it without my offensive lineman up front,” Hangartner said. “Our passing game wasn’t working, but it works all the time. We can move to that run game and it can be pretty solid. We just have to step up. We have a great running back corps. I personally think it’s the best in Southern Arizona. When one isn’t working, we can move to somebody else and just ball out on the ground. And if the running game isn’t working, we can go to all of our receivers.” … Thoreson settled into a groove after the early interceptions and completed 11 of 18 attempts for 200 yards with a touchdown. … Jack Bradley had two catches for 44 yards and Devin Hayward caught three passes for for 43 yards. Hayward also had an interception. …

Walden Grove’s defensive line, anchored by sophomore tackle Steven Valdez, who had a couple of sacks, was also effective. Mica Mountain’s 21 points are its second-lowest total of the season, behind the 15 points scored in a 17-15 loss at CDO two weeks ago. “Our defense played incredibly well all night,” Walden Grove coach Corey Noble mentioned. “Eventually got worn down there and gave up the last score (Hangartner’s run capping the 98-yard drive) but we battled.” … The Red Wolves’ power rating will likely increase when the polls come out Tuesday because they played the No. 4 team in the state. They play at No. 2 CDO on Friday, another game that should boost their power rating once more. Walden Grove could very well finish in the top 8 (despite potentially losing to Mica Mountain and CDO to end the regular season) and host in the first round. … Sunnyside coach Thomas Romack coached against his alma mater Buena for the first time as a head coach Friday and the tough-luck Blue Devils came up short 15-14 against the Colts. Sunnyside lost 14-12 at Casa Grande last week. That’s two games that could have gone the other way. The Blue Devils, who very well could be 6-3 right now, will try to go .500 this regular season with a victory at rival Desert View (3-6) on Friday. … No. 14 Buena is at 7-2 overall and has a good shot at the postseason with a home game against No. 12 Casa Grande on Friday. “We win next week, I don’t see how we can’t be in at 8-2,” Buena coach Joe Thomas told AllSportsTucson.com’s Kevin Murphy. “If we lose, which is not our option or what we’re preparing for, then you have to leave it up to chance and hope some guys in front of you lose. You hope that Casa Grande comes in with a good strength of schedule. There’s so many formulas but we just want to win.” …

Sabino’s 34-29 victory over Mohave will live on in the memories of those who were fortunate to attend the game. Down 34-16 with 9:35 left in the game, Mohave scored 13 straight points to cut the lead down to 34-29 with exactly 4 minutes left. After consecutive successful onside kick attempts, the Thunderbirds found themselves 1-yard away on the last play of the game from completing what would have been a remarkable victory but the Sabercat defense had other plans. Outside linebacker Zachari Haley slowed down the Mohave running back on a sweep play and cornerback Cameron Hackworth — also the team’s star running back — made the tackle behind the line to preserve the win. Hackworth’s two touchdown passes in the game gives him 87 for his career, a new Southern Arizona record. Trenton Bourguet (2015-18 at Marana) had the previous highest mark of 86. Hackworth unofficially finished with 253 yards passing, which gives him 7,844 yards for his career, moving him past Bourguet to No. 2 among Southern Arizona career passing leaders. Rhett Rodriguez (Catalina Foothills, 2013-16) has the record with 8,694. … Sabino coach Ryan McBrayer mentioned of the thrilling victory over Mohave: “Huge win against an undefeated team on Senior Night. Guys pulled together as a team. There was no dwelling on games we couldn’t change (including last week’s loss at Morenci) and they all attacked the week together. I’m super proud of their resilience and we look forward to being a team repping Tucson in the playoffs once again.” The Sabercats (7-3) can host at least the first two weeks of the playoffs as the No. 4 seed in the state playoffs.

1 Rhett Rodriguez, Catalina Foothills 8,694 (2013-16)
2 Cameron Hackworth, Sabino: 7,844 (2020-current)
3 Trenton Bourguet, Marana: 7,612 (2015-18)
4 Andrew Cota, Sunnyside/Salpointe, 7,554 (2010-13)
5 Reggie Robertson, Sahuaro 7,106 (1996-99)
6 Elijah Joplin, Marana: 6,074 (2020-2022)
7 Tyler D’Amore, Ironwood Ridge: 5,915 (2008-10)
8 Adriell Alvarado, Cienega: 5,910 (2012-15)
9 Adam Rodriguez, Desert View: 5,774 (1985-89)
10 Bobby Valdez, Sunnyside: 5,731 (1984-86)
11 Jovoni Borbon, Buena: 5,666 (2016-19)
12 Justice Summerset, Mountain View: 5,264 (2013-15)
13 Gabriel Smith, Walden Grove: 5,223 (2021-current)
14 Alex Lopez, Walden Grove: 5,062 (2017-19)

1 Cameron Hackworth, Sabino: 87 (2020-current)
2 Trenton Bourguet, Marana: 86 (2015-18)
3 Rhett Rodriguez, Catalina Foothills: 77 (2013-16)
3 Reggie Robertson, Sahuaro: 77 (1996-99)
5 Andrew Cota, Sunnyside/Salpointe: 71 (2010-13)
6 Elijah Joplin, Marana: 63 (2020-2022)
7 Gabriel Smith, Walden Grove: 59 (2021-current)
8 Alex Lopez, Walden Grove: 55 (2017-19)
8 Alex Bell, Sabino: 55 (2015-17)


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 in 2016 and is presently a special education teacher at Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

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