If you ask Saguaro coach Jason Mohns, he will say that his defense’s performance on Friday night wasn’t the best he had seen from it this season.
It was plenty effective, though, as the Sabercats captured the 2018 4A state championship, their sixth straight, in a landslide 42-16 victory over top-seeded Salpointe Catholic at Arizona Stadium in Tucson.
“We didn’t play our best defensively, to be honest with you,” Mohns said. “A lot of that is credit to Salpointe. They had a good game plan and kept us off balance.”
The Lancers, led by star running back Bijan Robinson, had the Sabercats on their heels early. Even though it may not have shown immediately on the scoreboard, Saguaro’s defense was dominant in holding down a high-scoring opponent.
“We just trusted each other in the second half,” Saguaro linebacker Connor Soelle said. “We tried to make plays that weren’t ours in the second quarter. We identified what we needed to do to fix things and that’s what we did in that second half.”
It was nothing new for Saguaro. The Sabercats allowed opposing teams to score just 19 points in the six games prior to the championship.
“Our hard work pays off,” Mohns said. “I just feel so good for our kids. Our kids buy in, we commit ourselves to it. It’s a culmination of a full year and we love it, we strive for it and can’t get enough of it.”
Robinson was all but shut down in the second half, rushing for just 30 yards and was sidelined for the final five minutes of the game. Salpointe managed just three second-half points.
It started up front for the Sabercats, where their defensive line applied pressure. Quarterback hurries, scrambles and false-start penalties contributed to the downfall of the Lancers.
“Our defense had a great plan tonight,” Saguaro linebacker Hogan Hatten said. “It helped that our defensive line played so well and our linebackers filled correctly. When you have an explosive back like Bijan, you’re just playing the contain game.”
The dominance of the defensive line allowed Saguaro's linebackers and secondary to take over. Soelle and Hatten made plays throughout that negated any momentum by Salpointe.
Hatten nearly intercepted a tipped pass deep in his own territory. If he hadn’t knocked it down, a wide open Salpointe receiver was waiting to make the catch inside Saguaro’s 10-yard line. It was a blessing in disguise for Saguaro that Hatten didn't make the pick.
“It actually worked out for the best,” Hatten said. “I was on the 12 so we would have gotten the ball there but they ended up missing the field goal and we got the ball on the 20.”
Hatten has been a difference maker on Saguaro’s defense since he became eligible after the fifth game. He and his brother, tight end Hayden Hatten, had to sit out five games after transferring from Pinnacle High during the off season.
The two quickly realized the winning mindset that surrounded the Saguaro program and acknowledged that the end of the season was bittersweet because it meant the end of their high school careers.
Soelle joins the Hatten twins as part of a four-time champion senior class to end their careers at Saguaro. He was seen after the game embracing his teammates and family in the stands with a smile on his face.
As the crowd began to thin and players made their way to the bus, Soelle said that everything was starting to sink in.
“That was my last game with all of my brothers,” Soelle said. “It’s an incredible way to go out.”
Soelle – who played a vital role on defense, offense and special teams this season – will continue his football career at Arizona State University.
The senior was successful on a big stage in front of his future coach, Herm Edwards, who was in attendance along with other Sun Devils coaches. Soelle's big fourth-down stop in the fourth quarter all but sealed Saguaro’s win.
Soelle celebrated the win with his teammates before he turns his attention to the off season and preparing for the next step in his career.
“I’m thankful to have been a part of this program and the relationships I made with all of these guys I will keep forever,” he said.