Tucson — The phrase “defense wins championships” has become cliche in today’s sports but Saguaro High School showed why the adage is tried and true.
The No. 2 Sabercats ran all over the No. 4 Salpointe Catholic High School 28–7 in the 4A state championship game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson Saturday, Dec. 2. This was Saguaro’s fifth consecutive state championship, an Arizona record, and its 11th overall.
To get that historic trophy, Saguaro used some suffocating defense, forcing two turnovers that later resulted in scores. Furthermore, Salpointe Catholic’s only score came on a special teams play so the defense didn’t allow any points.
The Saguaro defense also kept Lancer running backs Bijan Robinson, who finished with 164 yards on 24 carries, and Mario Padilla, 18 yards on eight carries, in check, keeping Robinson out of the end zone. These two were key parts of the offense throughout the year.
Both had flashes but neither ever established dominance. Robinson said he tried run outside because Saguaro had a strong inside presence.
Linebacker Connor Soelle said the defense found the right formula and used it to excel.
“As long as you have trust in each other, I think any defense can be great,” he said after the game. “We all trust each other, we all have each other’s backs. If someone messes up, we’ll pick them up, that’s what led us to be great.”
Heading into the game, Saguaro Head Coach Jason Mohns said Salpointe Catholic’s offensive line and duo of Robinson and Padilla against his team’s defense would make an interesting matchup.
After the game, however, he said he thought his defense was getting overlooked a bit leading into the finals.
“We wanted to come out here and prove a point,” he said after the game. “Now, we’re only playing three seniors on our defense. It’s a young group and those young guys stepped up to the challenge. They answered the call and I’m really proud of them.”
At first, this one looked like it would be a defensive showdown as the first quarter ended scoreless.
The Sabercats struck first after quarterback Max Massingale fired a 35-yard pass to receiver Logan Pettijohn early in the first to take the 7–0 lead after the made point after touchdown.
Robinson and the Lancers began driving on the next drive with a mixture of runs from their two running backs.
But the Sabercat defense squashed the drive as safety Josiah Bradley picked off a tipped pass to set up Saguaro at the Lancer 37-yard line.
Four plays later, Massingale found Pettijohn for a 13-yard haul to the one-yard line. Massingale finished the job with a short run to put Saguaro up 14–0 with about three minutes left until halftime.
Pettijohn said the passing game was working because the Sabercats exploited a part of the Lancers’ defense in pass coverage.
“A lot of just isolations against one-on-ones between me and Zach (Wilson),” he said. “We just beat them on one-on-ones.”
After trading punts throughout most of the third quarter, Saguaro’s defense struck again as defensive back Antonio Cuevas picked off Padilla at the Saguaro 22.
Coach Mohns said the defensive gameplan included trying to take away the run, causing the Lancers to throw.
“We forced them out of their comfort zone and we were opportunistic when that happened,” he said.
The offense capitalized and moved the ball downfield with relative ease, ending with an 11-yard heave from Massingale to Pettijohn to go up 21–0 with under a minute to play in the third.
Salpointe Catholic, however, wasn’t ready to quit. Padilla took the ensuing kickoff 99 yards for the touchdown to give the large Lancer crowd something to cheer about. Salpointe Catholic’s campus is only a little more than two miles from Arizona Stadium.
The Lancers had a chance to add another after Robinson raced 39 yards to give them 1st and goal at the Saguaro 10.
A high snap for a 14-yard loss and a two-yard loss after Lancer quarterback Rodrigo Nieto tripped with an open field ahead of him led to Salpointe Catholic turning over on downs.
What followed was a 10-play, 80-yard drive with Massingale finishing with a short run to secure the championship and history.
“I thought we played as close to a perfect game as we could have played against a very good football team,” Coach Mohns said. “I thought it was going to take our best effort to beat them.”
On the other sideline, Salpointe Catholic Head Coach Dennis Bene said he is proud of his team for their entire season and he feels for his players for falling in the game.
“They gave me everything they had tonight,” he said after the game. “Obviously we came up short but it wasn’t from a lack of effort, that’s for sure.”
Coming into the game, Coach Mohns said he knew his team was in for a physical game against a tough Salpointe Catholic squad.
When it all ended, he said Saguaro executed its gameplan and provided a unique challenge for the Lancers.
“We played a physical game and that’s their M.O.,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve had anyone go toe-to-toe with them in that kind of physical match all season long. We knew that’s what we needed to do to win that game.”