It was a run of success few programs will ever come close to, but Saguaro’s reign in 4A-I football came to an end Friday in the state semifinals.
Tucson Sabino made sure Saguaro’s string of championships would not reach four, as Sabino prevailed in the battle of the Sabercats, 28-6, at Paradise Valley High School.
“Is it discouraging that we’re not in the show? Yeah, it’s discouraging — these guys wanted to do it in the worst way,” Saguaro coach John Sanders said. “We’ve had some great kids come through the program, and some were here tonight. They were really pulling for these guys.”
Sabino’s win means there will be two Tucson teams in next Saturday’s championship game at Arizona Stadium in Tucson. Sabino will take on Tucson Canyon del Oro, a 48-16 winner Friday over Vail Cienega, at 6 p.m.
“To have it in our hometown is extremely important,” Sabino coach Jay Campos said. “Tucson football doesn’t always get the accolades, but this year, we have a lot of good football teams out there.”
The loss ended a string of 14 straight playoff victories for Saguaro, the longest such streak in 4A since the 1981-84 Flagstaff teams won four straight titles.
Sanders knew he would have his work cut out for him this year with so many players lacking varsity experience, but Saguaro managed to go 10-3.
“I knew what we had coming back, I knew when we were picked to go 5-5 and I knew when we were picked to finish fourth in the region,” Sanders said. “At the end of the day, I’m pretty proud of these kids. They kept battling, they kept fighting.”
The fight on Friday was dominated by Sabino’s dynamic senior duo of Keanu Nelson and Stephen Fraser.
Fraser did all of his damage on the ground, rushing for 184 yards on 19 carries and scoring one touchdown. Nelson spread his talent around, rushing for 106 yards and a touchdown; catching five passes for 95 yards and a touchdown; intercepting two passes on defense; and punting twice, with a 49-yard average.
Saguaro was hurt by three turnovers, including an interception by Nelson at the Sabino 1-yard line right before halftime.
The turnover that hurt the most, however, was the first. Saguaro took the opening kickoff and marched into Sabino territory. On a fourth-and-2 at the Sabino 22, Saguaro quarterback Teddy Ruben ran for 4 yards before getting hit and fumbling.
Sabino recovered, killing Saguaro’s early momentum.
“That was like a giant dagger to the heart,” Sanders said of Ruben’s fumble. “If that doesn’t happen, I think it’s a different football game. I was very optimistic the way we moved it, and then when we fumbled, it was like the whole momentum changed and turned things around.”
Sabino turned around and drove into Saguaro territory. Facing a fourth down at the Saguaro 35, Sabino quarterback Nathan Brooks hit wide-open slot receiver Mike Brown for a touchdown that swung the game’s momentum to Sabino for good.
“That was huge,” Campos said of the swing. “They have a potent offense, so we just tried to keep them as under control as we could, and we did that. We didn’t allow the big play tonight.”
On its next drive, Saguaro drove back into Sabino territory only to turn the ball over on downs at the 26. Just three plays later, Fraser broke free for a 65-yard touchdown run that put Sabino ahead 14-0 with 22 seconds left to play in the first quarter.
Nelson scored the only touchdown of the third quarter on a 49-yard swing pass. Saguaro finally got on the board with a 2-yard run by Danny Clark with 9:05 left in the game.
Saguaro then looked like it had some life, as Sabino was facing a third-and-16 from its own 10-yard line, but Fraser broke off a 45-yard run that all but ended Saguaro’s hopes.
Ruben finished with 134 yards rushing on 15 carries, and Clark had 117 yards on 14 carries.
“We’re going to regroup,” Sanders said. “We’re a young team and we’re going to be OK next year.”