TUCSON - Between accusations of running up the score against Phoenix Thunderbird and widespread criticism for resting its starters against Chaparral, Saguaro has been the most controversial football team in the state this season.
But the Sabercats proved once and for all on Saturday that there's no drama remaining in what they care about most - a quest for another state championship.
Tucson Sabino was the only conceivable challenger left in Saguaro's way, but it didn't take long for Saguaro to prove once again it is peerless in Divison III.
D.J. Foster carried the ball 24 times for 291 yards and three touchdowns, caught another score and had an interception on defense to lead Saguaro to a 49-27 victory over Sabino in the state semifinals at Salpointe High.
The Sabercats had to travel to Tucson because it was the lower seed, and now will make the trek to Flagstaff to face off with Glendale Cactus in the championship game next Saturday in Northern Arizona's Walkup Skydome.
"I'm on a cross country tour now," Saguaro coach John Sanders said. "They send me to the far south, then the far north, but we just keep having fun. I don't care where they send us as long as we're playing."
Sabino started out well in this one, recovering a pooched onside kick and scoring four plays later on Sunthi Danh's 19-yard touchdown run for an early 6-0 advantage.
Saguaro took the lead on a 30-yard touchdown run by Foster a little more than two minutes later, and scored the next four touchdowns to take control.
"We knew we needed to score right away to set the tone back," said linebacker/tight end Ryan Merrill, who caught a pair of touchdown passes.
Sabino quarterback Dallas Brown scored on a 65-yard scramble to cut the deficit to 35-13 at the half, and a 15-yard pass from Brown to Matt Bushman sliced Saguaro's lead to 35-20 with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter.
Foster and Brown traded scoring runs, and then Foster put it away with a 63-yard dash into the end zone to make it 49-27 late in the third quarter.
Neither team would score in the fourth quarter, and an exhausted Foster would turn away Sabino's last-ditch comeback effort with an interception after switching to cornerback and guarding Bushman.
"I like offense more, but of course I'll play wherever to get a win for the team," Foster said.
Foster set the tone early, and allowed easy openings for quarterback Luke Rubenzer on play-action. Rubenzer finished 6-of-9 for 139 yards and three touchdowns and ran for another score. He completed his first six passes when Saguaro took the big early lead.
Brown had 126 yards rushing and two scores and was 11-of-24 for 169 yards through the air, but except for a few broken plays that went for long gains, Saguaro's defense played well.
Saguaro lost two times in the regular season - 65-0 to Chaparral without the starters and 31-28 to Desert Vista - but hasn't been beaten by a divisional opponent since a regular season loss to Oro Valley Canyon del Oro on Oct. 1 of last year.
Both Chaparral (Division II) and Desert Vista (Division I) are preparing for championship games, and it's clear the Sabercats are closer to their level than anyone in Division III.
Saguaro has now cruised past Sabino, Cactus, Thunderbird, Arcadia and Queen Creek, five of the better Division I teams. The Sabercats defeated Cactus 62-24 in a Sept. 23 regular season meeting.
The Sabercats had no turnovers against Sabino and only punted three times. With controversy behind it, Saguaro will shoot for its fifth title in six years in a week.
"We've been working all season for this, and it's great that it's all coming together," Merrill said.