Saguaro earned a chance to play for yet-another state championship, as the Sabercats finished a comeback 20-16 win over Hamilton in Saturday’s Open Division football semifinal game.
The win came as a result of tight late defense and an increased proficiency in the running game.
After going into halftime down 16-6, the Sabercats came back onto the field with noticeable energy. They moved well in an early drive, capping it off with a 35-yard touchdown pass to trim the lead to 3.
The defense held stout and earned Saguaro a possession midway through the fourth quarter down 16-13, though the Sabercats went cold and could not move the ball well. But, on third down and long, senior linebacker and tight end Will Shaffer was inserted in the game at running back. He took a handoff 41 yards, plowing over several would-be tacklers in the process, for a touchdown that gave the Sabercats their first lead.
“We were trying to maybe get some yards back and see if we could get into field goal range, to be honest with you. But, (Shaffer’s) the heart and soul of this team, and he cares,” coach Jason Mohns said.
Saguaro put together another defensive stop, and attempted to run the clock out. But, Hamilton’s defense held and gave the Huskies one last chance to score a touchdown and win with great field position off a blocked punt.
The Husky offense, led in its final drive by junior quarterback Gavin Goulette – senior Nick Arvay went down with an injury earlier – marched to the red zone, and had several chances to score and take a late lead.
With under a minute left, Hamilton had a first down with just two yards to go. But, an errant snap, spiked ball and incompletion on third down moved the offense back to fourth-and-eight. On their final offensive play of the game, the Huskies succumbed to a well-planned pass rush.
“I was rolling left, saw some pressure, tried to cut back right and see if my check down was available, and it just didn’t go our way,” Goulette said of the final play.
Goulette’s attempted pass fell harmlessly to the ground for a turnover-on-downs. Saguaro celebrated as it knelt out the final seconds of the game in victory formation, while capping off a shutout in the second half.
“You can’t win if you don’t score any points, and that’s what we kept telling our defense. Our defense has been clutch all night, and that’s what we did and went in and got the win,” Shaffer said.
The defensive effort in the second half juxtaposed Saguaro’s first half in which it gave up 16. With a pair of strong front lines, both teams stuffed each other’s run game in the first half. But, eluding pass rushers with his quick feet, Arvay found open receivers to move the ball through the air. He had two touchdown passes early-on.
Meanwhile, Saguaro connected on a few passes, but were continuously stopped in the red zone. The Sabercats had to settle for a pair of short field goals.
“We were moving the ball up and down the field, we just weren’t finishing. We were putting them in third-and-long situations, we just weren’t finishing,”
Execution on key plays late, though, led to a berth in the Open Division final on September 7.
The Sabercats will face No. 1 Chandler, which defeated Salpointe Catholic 24-16 at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe for a chance to hoist the golden ball.
HAM - Armenta 54 pass from Arvay (kick failed), 4:53
HAM - Kofahl 29 FG 0:43
SAG - Lewis 32 FG, 7:53
HAM - Maslin 13 pass from Arvay (Kofahl kick), 4:11
SAG - Lewis 25 FG, 0:00
SAG - Werner 35 pass from Beverett (Lewis kick), 2:08
SAG - Shaffer 41 run (Lewis kick), 7:34