Sometimes, the storylines write themselves. That’s the case for the latest installment of the Scottsdale Saguaro-Cactus rivalry.
Friday’s game features more than the top two teams in Division III — teams that have opened up a gap on the rest of the field in the early weeks of 2011. It’s more than another showdown between arguably the two best 4A programs of the last decade.
Without knowing the background on both schools, two numbers would pique the interest of most high school football fans. Saguaro (4-0) brings in an offense averaging 61 points per game to face a Cactus (3-0) defense that has shut out its first three opponents.
“Ultimately, this game should live up to the hype,” Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said. “Hopefully, it’ll be a classic.”
The 2010 game is a tough act to follow. For a while, it appeared the series would take a break after Cactus’ 42-41 overtime triumph.
Because of frequent playoff clashes, the schools have met 12 times in the past nine seasons. Fetkenhier said the only schools Cactus has played more in its history are West Valley rivals Peoria, Agua Fria, Tolleson and Greenway.
Both coaches had agreed to give the rivalry a two-year break, Fetkenhier said. There was one problem — no one wanted to play Saguaro, and schools weren’t lining up to fill Cactus’ schedule.
So two programs who have been too good for their own good will meet again. Cactus has two state titles in the last six years.
Saguaro’s on an even better streak, with four trophies in the past five seasons. That history gives the Sabercats an advantage over most teams before they step off the bus.
“I think they intimidate other teams,” Fetkenhier said. “I don’t think they intimidate us.”
There’s a mutual respect, as both schools know the matchups on the field should determine the winner. And the most fascinating matchup is how Cactus’ lock-down defense will deal with Saguaro senior superstar D.J. Foster.
Foster already has 814 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on only 54 carries, and another 103 yards and a touchdown receiving. Plus, he’s not a stationary target for defenses to game plan against.
“They play him at receiver, running back and quarterback," Fetkenhier said. "It’s not like you know he’s always in that one spot.”
Opponents can’t tailor their scheme solely to stopping Foster thanks to the arrival of bruising fullback and Cactus Shadows transfer Cameron Larson. Since sophomore quarterback Luke Rubenzer seized the starting job, he’s made teams that overload on Foster pay, finding senior wideout Vince Sliva deep eight times for a whopping 313 yards.
“Our offense, I can’t say enough about it,” Saguaro coach John Sanders said. “We were No. 1 in the country in offense heading into the Fountain Hills game, and I think we still are. We’ve never been better offensively.”
On the flip side, Saguaro hasn’t seen a defense quite like Cactus’ this year. Last week’s 49-0 loss to Greenway was the first time the Cobras allowed an opponent into the red zone. It was also the third time in three tries Cactus has held its foe under 100 yards of offense.
The Cobras are small at every position, but compensate with a fleet of speedy playmakers. Defensive line seniors Mike Ledesma, Seth Dealejandro and Antero Taddie can cover space like linebackers or provide pressure.
Senior outside linebacker William Bishop leads Cactus with four sacks, while captain Guy Williams has 22 tackles. Williams and senior Chris Jennings and junior Zac Bradley are also adept at dropping into coverage.
“They do everything well. They’re the best defense in the state,” Sanders said. “(Coordinator Brian) Belles does a great job of coaching those kids. When you play Cactus you know you’re going to be in for a battle. Nobody’s been able to score on them.”
The other side of the equation isn’t all that bad either. Cactus is averaging nearly 46 points a game, while Saguaro is giving up 15.
Fetkenhier said the Sabercats feature a big defensive line led by two-way linemen Robert Dusz and Tanner Case, plus a standout middle linebacker in Ryan Merrill. Larson also bolsters the linebacking corps, while Sanders saves Foster for important plays in the secondary.
Though perhaps not as much of a sore spot as last year, Saguaro’s depth will be tested by Cactus again. The Cobras almost never play a kid both ways and feature a breakneck zone read option offense similar to Oregon’s.
In most games Saguaro opens up such a big lead that it can rest some of its top two-way players on defense or get opponents out of their running games in an effort to catch up.
While Saguaro jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter, Cactus stuck with its fast-break-on-grass approach and the lack of time between plays wore on the Sabercat defenders.
Fatigue also played a role in Sanders’ decision to go for two in overtime.
“I don’t think Larry’s changing the game plan. He knows our roster. He knows we have kids that go both ways,” Sanders said. “They deserve their due. They did a great job against us last year. We had them down 21-0 and couldn’t put our foot on their throat. They had wanted us really bad. Hats off to them. We know we’re in for the same thing. This is a big test for this whole football team.”
Cactus returned only three starters on offense — Washington State-bound guard Denzel Dotson and a pair of receivers. Fetkenhier said senior quarterback Michael Putko has shown good command of the offense in his first three games as starter.
Putko leads the Cobras with 348 rushing yards, with senior tailback Josh Aguirre has 315 yards. Putko’s also added a dimension to the passing game, completing 27 of 36 throws for 345 yards and five touchdowns.
“We need to keep up that tempo, get on the ball as fast as we can and tire them out,” Dotson said. “Our quarterback’s doing great, the running backs all run hard. I think we should get off to a better start (against Saguaro) than last year.”
But, Fetkenhier said, the offense needs more consistent effort and the young linemen around Dotson must continue to grow. To beat a team of Saguaro’s caliber, the Cobras must max out this week.
“They don’t play every play like it’s important. That’s got to change,” Fetkenhier said. “For us to be successful, we have to maintain our focus and play hard every play.”