Salponte fell to Scottsdale Saguaro, 42-24, at home in the 6A state semifinals on Friday night.
Saguaro never trailed after a 45-yard rushing touchdown from Jaedon Matthews on the game’s opening drive gave the Sabercats a 7-0 lead.
A 5-yard rushing touchdown from junior Nathan Spivey tied the game at 7-7 midway through the first quarter, but a 75-yard touchdown pass from Saguaro senior quarterback Mason Bray — son of former Arizona Desert Swarm defender Heath Bray — to Reiss Rinaldi, a 7-yard rushing touchdown from Jacob Brown and a 37-yard pass to Mason Whitacker led to a 28-10 lead for the Sabercats at halftime.
Two second-half touchdown passes from Bray — a 38-yard pass to Matthews and a 7-yard pass to Brown put Saguaro up 42-10 with eight minutes remaining.
A 5-yard rushing touchdown from senior running back Jaxson Banhie, and a 4-yard rushing touchdown from senior Jaylin Wills-Dennard closed the game out for the Lancers when the game was out of reach.
Despite the loss, Salpointe head coach Eric Rogers sees his team as a courageous group with nothing to be ashamed of.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t our night,” he said. “We didn’t play how we were capable of playing. I’m disappointed in that, but God, what a great, great group. I couldn’t be more proud of our seniors, our coaches, our admin, (and) everybody. It’s just one heck of a year. I didn’t quite end the way we wanted it to, but I’m so proud of a lot of people. There’s a lot of people who put a lot of work into this.”
The Lancers beat Scottsdale Saguaro 21-14 on the road on Oct. 27, but Rogers says the Sabercats, led by Bray, are playing on a different level now.
“They were banged up when we played them before,” he said. “Their quarterback (Bray) is playing a lot better right now. He had come off a big injury. He’s healthy right now, you can tell. He’s running the ball, he’s throwing the ball, he’s doing some things for them.”
Rogers believes the Lancers were tremendously successful this season, especially given their strength of schedule and that 10 players on Salpointe’s 53-man roster also played on the junior varsity team.
“At the beginning of the year, you look back, and they said this was the toughest Southern Arizona schedule of any team, maybe ever, and let’s go back to the ’60s and ’70s,” he said.
Rogers praised the 20 outgoing seniors and alums on the sideline during the game while noting this season’s group of seniors was the first group he coached for all four years after taking the head coaching position at Salpointe in 2020.
Salpointe lost to Scottsdale Horizon in the 5A state championship game in 2021 under Rogers.
“They’re a great group,” he said. “They’re gutsy. They’re going to turn around and go on and do great things. They’re going to be great ambassadors of Salpointe and our community… We had so many alums on the sideline tonight just cheering our guys on; guys that have been here and done it. That’s what makes the place really special.”
He is also grateful he got to coach highly-rated senior defensive ends, Ejiah Rushing and Keona Wilhite.
Rushing and Wilhite had combined for 105 tackles, 35.5 for loss and 21 sacks coming into Friday’s game. Rushing, who has committed to Oregon, had 17 tackles for loss and 13 sacks before Friday night. Wilhite, bound for Washington, had 54 tackles, including 18.5 for loss with eight sacks.
“They were great teammates,” Rogers said. “They never cared about the stars. It wasn’t about stars; it was about being champions. They were always great teammates, and they always put their teammates first and just set a great example for everyone. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
In a Nov. 9 interview with All Sports Tucson, Rushing praised the coaching staff.
“These are the best coaches in the city, if not the state,” he said “You come here to do big things, and I was just blessed to be here.”
Following the game on Friday night, Wilhite said he will look back favorably on all the memories he has with the program.
“I’ll look back on it with a smile and just be happy I was able to spend my time here with all these guys,” he said. “These were my brothers for real. We spent blood and sweat and laid it on this field. I’ll look back with a smile and be happy.”
Now that the season has ended, the immediate goal for Rogers is to help find some outgoing seniors a place to play college football.
“That’s what we do next. So, we go find them a place to play and let them carry on the tradition, carry the torch.”
Wide receiver and cornerback Armani Sheriff is one of the seniors on this season’s Salpointe team that plans to continue his football career.
“First off, I’m super proud of my boys. Secondly, this is the best four years of my life so far,” he said, reflecting on his time with the Lancers. “Hopefully, in the next year, I can play in the next level of college football because they’ve definitely set me up for that — just the coaches (and) teammates — the brotherhood that they’ve created here, so I love them.”
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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.