A spectacular first year as a full-fledged AIA member ended for Mesa Prep in a flurry of mistakes and missed tackles on Saturday in the first round of the Division VI state playoffs.
The sixth-seeded Monsoons – after a sparkling 7-1 regular season – ran into a bigger, stronger and opportunistic team in No. 11 Salome, and Mesa Prep fell, 60-27, on Saturday night at Gilbert Christian High School.
“When you get into the playoffs, you have to eliminate your mistakes and turnovers and we did not do that today,” said Mesa Prep coach Amy Arnold.
The Frogs (7-2) will travel for a quarterfinal meeting at No. 3 Pima next Friday.
For Mesa Prep on Saturday, it couldn’t stop the strong Salome running game and quarterback Nick Staloch threw seven interceptions – three of which were returned for scores.
Despite some early miscues, the Monsoons were within striking distance at the break. They held Salome late in the second and scored themselves in the final minute of the half on a big 60-yard pass from Staloch to Jackson Ventrella to cut the lead to 20-12.
But the Frogs returned the kickoff to open the third quarter for a touchdown, forced a fumble on the next play and quickly scored, and the Monsoons never recovered.
Staloch threw for 300 yards and three touchdowns and workhorse running back Paul Varner picked up 91 yards on the ground.
But once the Monsoons fell behind by three scores in the second half, they were forced to pass and never got any momentum. Salome’s Kade Scott did it all – threw for 129 yards and ran for 68 more to guide a tight, ball-control offense. He even intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown in the first half.
There were flashes of optimism – Staloch hit Ventrella on a 63-yard scoring play to cut the lead to 32-20 in the first minute of the second half. But Mesa Prep couldn’t bounce back after Salome quickly drove down for another score with 9:04 left in the third and the Frogs kept the pressure on with backups in the fourth quarter.
“This year we have been a second-half team,” Arnold said. “But we did not execute the way we wanted to execute, we didn’t execute on offense and defense. We got beat soundly.”
Mesa Prep had high expectations this season after reaching the charter school championship game a year ago and then sweeping through its schedule.
The Monsoons won their first six games by an average of 29 points a game. They stumbled against powerful Heber Mogollon, the No. 2 seed this year and the state runners-up last year, but Mesa Prep easily beat Ajo in the final game of the regular season to earn a No. 6 seed.
On the positive side, Staloch, Varner and Ventrella all return next season as the Monsoons only listed five seniors on their roster. But standout linebacker Bryson Tibbitts and big-play receiver Matt Ginty will graduate.
“A majority of our team next year will be seniors, so I am looking forward to having them next year,” Arnold said.
Saloime 60, Mesa Prep 27
Salome 14 6 18 22 – 60
Mesa Prep 0 12 8 7 - 27
S-Garza 10 run (run failed)
S-Scott 56 interception return (Ciszewski pass from Scott)
MP-Ventrella 9 pass from Staloch (kick failed)
S-Friedle 18 pass from Scott (pass failed)
MP-Ventrella 60 pass from Staloch (run failed)
S-Garza 86 kickoff return (pass failed)
S-Friedle 20 pass from Scott (pass failed)
MP-Ventrella 63 pass from Staloch (Varner run)
S-Ciszewski 21 run (pass failed)
S-Garza 24 pass from Scott (Ciszewski run)
S-Garza 54 interception return (Ciszewski pass from Scott)
S-Friedle 94 interception return (run failed)
MP-Ventrella 36 pass from Staloch (Cantrell kick)
First Downs: Salome 16, Mesa Prep 17
Rushes-yards: Salome 48-275, Mesa Prep 25-121
Passing yards: Salome 129, Mesa Prep 300
Passes: Salome 8-18-0, Mesa Prep 17-41-7
Fumbles-lost: Salome 2-1, Mesa Prep 2-1
Penalties-yards: Salome 7-36, Mesa Prep 1-10