If you take a closer look at the Arizona high school football state championship games in Division II and Division III, it would appear the division re-alignment that went into effect this season is working pretty well.
Saguaro High School rolled to the D-II state title by beating Marcos de Niza High, 38-20, after moving up from Division III this year. Despite moving up a level, the Sabercats’ appearance in the title game wasn’t terribly surprising since they have been a dominating force against D-III teams. This title was the school’s ninth state football championship – eight of those in the last 10 years.
Paradise Valley High School moved down from Division II to D-III play and rolled through the season undefeated and into the championship game for the first time in the history of the football program. The Trojans lost to Desert Edge High School, falling an agonizing two points short of that goal, as Desert Edge squeezed out a 29-27 victory in the D-III championship game.
PV made it to the quarterfinals in D-II last year and took the returning talent and rode the arm of one of the top quarterbacks in the state, Daniel Bridge-Gadd, to success at a different level. The Trojans were given the top seed in the playoffs and entered the title game 13-0.
But on Saturday morning at Arizona Stadium in Tucson, No. 3 Desert Edge (11-2), which had come into the season as the No. 1-ranked team in Division III, was just a little better.
The Scorpions had their own top gun at quarterback. Tehran Thomas, one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the state, threw for 138 yards and added another 214 rushing to lead the way to the title. He will be back next year for his senior season and will be coming off a junior-year performance of 1,149 yards passing and 1,646 rushing – despite missing three games with a foot injury.
Bridge-Gadd did his damage against PV through the air, throwing for 415 yards and three touchdowns. That brings his total yards passing to 4,268 on the season – the best of any prep QB in the state and among the 10 best in the nation – and 9,411 for his high school career.
It was Thomas that put the win on his back and made it happen. Down 27-23 with two minutes left to play, he ran for 40 yards on a fourth-down play that put the ball on the one-yard line – and then punched in the score with 1:32 left to play.
Then it was Bridge-Gadd’s turn. He engineered a 59-yard drive that took the ball to the Desert Edge 17, but time ran out and a long field goal attempt fell short.
At 4 o’clock, Saguaro took over the field to try for its third consecutive state title after winning back-to-back titles in Division III. The program had been on a 28-game winning streak that extended back to 2013 before Centennial High, which moved up from D-II to D-I this season, ended it in the second game on the 2015 schedule with a 41-21 come-from-behind victory.
After a second loss, to Pinnacle High (another D-I team) in the next game, the Sabercats rebounded and strung together 11 wins that culminated in the convincing 38-20 victory over Marcos de Niza in the title game.
Marcos (12-3), which was looking for its first-ever state football title, hung in there against a team that featured an experienced offensive line that averages 300 pounds and a talented running back that knows how to use it. Junior running back Stone Matthews ran for almost 300 yards, most of it in the second half, to fuel the Saguaro offense.
His 291 yards were a career-high, but he has produced big numbers on a regular basis all season long. Saturday’s game marked the 11th consecutive time he has rushed for more than 100 yards. He finished the season with 2,155 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns.
And when senior quarterback Kare’ Lyles wasn’t handing the ball to Matthews, he was passing it to his senior wide receiver, Byron Murphy, who collected 121 yards on eight catches and accounted for a couple of scores. Lyles, who has committed to play for Wisconsin next year, finished the night with 256 yards on 18-for-28 passing.
The Padres had an early 14-12 lead, were down just four points at the half, and five going into the fourth quarter. But Saguaro’s defense held them scoreless for the final period to nail down the win.
Marcos had an efficient game on the ground, rushing for 239 yards that was led by Avery Sanders‘ 139 yards.
But they were crushed under the weight of the Sabercat offense that totaled 565 total yards.