Down goes the champ.
For the first time since 2009, Saguaro will not be adding another state championship trophy to its mantle, as the ninth-seeded Sabercats surrendered an 18-point halftime lead Friday night in a 38-35 loss to unbeaten and top-seeded Goodyear Desert Edge in the quarterfinals of the Division III playoffs.
The loss snapped a nine-game playoff win streak dating back to 2009, when Saguaro was upended by Tucson Sabino 28-6 in the semifinals. The Sabercats, who finished 8-4, had captured five state titles in the past six years.
“If you want to win a championship, you have to make the big plays, and we just didn’t do it tonight,” first-year coach Jason Mohns said.
Desert Edge (12-0) will face No. 5 Williams Field at 7 p.m. next Saturday at Glendale Sandra Day O’Connor high school.
“We were the No. 1 seed for a reason,” Desert Edge coach Rich Wellbrock said. “There are some good football teams in the West Valley. Nobody wants to say there is in some cases, but there are some good football teams in the West Valley where we cut our teeth.”
Uncharacteristically, the Sabercats fumbled the ball twice in the red zone in the fourth quarter, and that proved to be too much to overcome. The first fumble came with 8:38 remaining after Saguaro drove to the Desert Edge 5-yard line trailing 31-28. Quarterback Luke Rubenzer was corralled at the 10 and was reaching out for a few extra yards when it appeared his knee was down and the ball squirted out. The Scorpions recovered at the 8, and after a brief huddle by the officials, the play was ruled a fumble.
“The player was down,” Mohns said. “If I am wrong, I will apologize, but I had a pretty good view.”
Desert Edge made the fumble a costly one when Sawyer Lung found Elijah Marks for a 45-yard TD strike that extended the lead to 38-28 with 4:37 remaining.
“They came out in the second half and made huge plays,” Mohns said.
Saguaro countered when Rubenzer lead a five-play, 39-second drive that was capped with a 32-yard TD pass to Ayden Richards after the play was extended and coverage broke down.
Saguaro attempted a pooch kickoff, but Desert Edge was ready and fell on the ball at its own 32. The Scorpions tried to run out the clock, but the Sabercats brought pressure on three consecutive negative-yardage plays, and after a Desert Edge penalty and two Saguaro timeouts, Desert Edge was forced to punt the ball back to Saguaro with 3:15 remaining.
“It is a great football team with a bunch of playmakers ,so we were worried,” Wellbrock said.
With its newfound momentum, Saguaro looked like the powerhouse of years past and drove all the way to Desert Edge 11-yard line. But this time, fate was not on the Sabercats’ side. Rubenzer tried to pull the ball on a designed option, but the ball slipped away, and Desert Edge’s Josh Famolaro pounced on it with 1:10 remaining.
“I told our kids that we have been lucky enough that we have usually been on the other side, the happy side,” Mohns said.
Rubenzer was nearly flawless, going 20-of-26 passing for 245 yards and three touchdowns. The junior quarterback also carried the ball 19 times for 68 yards and a TD. Christian Kirk added a 6-yard TD run in the first quarter.
Despite their efforts, Saguaro will not be part of the final four for the first time since 2005.
“Most of our senior classes have been able to go out with a ring and with smiles on their faces,” Mohns said. “This is a different feeling for us to see our seniors crying because we fell short of our goal.”
Desert Edge 38, Saguaro 35
Saguaro 7 14 7 7 – 35
Desert Edge 3 0 21 14 – 38
First Downs: Saguaro 21, Desert Edge 17
Rushing: Saguaro 39-163, Desert Edge 29-125
Comp-Att-Int: Saguaro 20-27-0, Desert Edge 14-27-1
Passing Yards: Saguaro 245, Desert Edge 210
Fumbles-Lost: Saguaro 3-2, Desert Edge 0-0
Penalties-Yards: Saguaro 9-67, Desert Edge 9-75
S – Kirk 6 run (Tjaarda kick)
DE – Brown 32 FG
S – Ball 35 pass from Rubenzer (Tjaarda kick)
S – Rubenzer 1 run (Tjaarda kick)
DE – Marks 54 pass from Lung (Brown kick)
DE – Lung 1 run (Brown kick)
S – Richards 51 pass from Rubenzer (Tjaarda kick)
DE – Sells 16 pass from Lung (Brown kick)
DE – Woolard 48 run (Brown kick)
DE – Marks 45 pass from Lung (Brown kick)
S – Richards 32 pass from Rubenzer (Tjaarda kick)