The national spotlight shined bright on Saguaro Friday night as the Sabercats hosted Hamilton in a rematch of last year’s Open Division semifinal in front of a nationally televised audience.
Both defensive units shined in front of the ESPN cameras. But Hamilton’s special teams, led by sophomore Cole Martin, put the Huskies in position to narrowly edge Saguaro, 13-7.
“When I’m standing back there, I don’t plan what I’m going to do,” Martin said when asked how he approaches kick returns. “They give me control where I go. I kind of just feel it, it’s almost like an instinct.
“But we’ve worked hard all week. We did everything we could to put us on top in this game.”
Martin shined in the return game for Hamilton, flipping the field twice and at one point giving his offense a first and goal at the Saguaro 5-yard line. Both of his returns resulted in points for the Huskies.
The four-star defensive back proved to be elusive with the ball in his hands, often making several would-be tacklers miss in the open field to gain more yards. While on defense, he proved why he is one of the best at his position in the country, virtually shutting down opposing wideouts.
“We want (Martin) to flip the field and to get him in space and let him make big plays. That’s why he’s back there,” Zdebski said. “We wanted everybody to see how electric he is.”
While admittedly undersized, Hamilton’s defense shut down Saguaro’s high-powered offense.
Every Sabercat possession ended in a turnover on downs or punt. Saguaro’s lone score of the game came in the first quarter on a 50-yard punt return by junior Javen Jacobs. Saguaro, did, however, find flashes of momentum on offense, most of which came with the ball in Jacobs’ hands.
A halfback pass from Jacobs to senior quarterback and tight end Xander Werner put Saguaro in Hamilton territory early in the second half. That drive, however ended in a punt. With the Sabercats already trailing late in the fourth a double pass from Werner to Jacobs put Saguaro deep in Husky territory with a chance to tie the game.
Hamilton’s defense held strong and forced another turnover on downs that sealed the victory.
“I’m so thankful for our defense,” Hamilton junior quarterback Nicco Marchiol said. “We couldn’t get the job done on offense. But they had put back from the first quarter through the fourth quarter.”
Marchiol, a highly touted prospect who transferred to Hamilton from Colorado in the offseason, was briefed on the importance of the matchup with Saguaro. It was a revenge game for the Huskies, and Marchiol said it the national broadcast made the stakes even higher.
“(Teammates) said this was just as big as Chandler,” Marchiol recalled. “There’s a lot of history between some of the guys and you could definitely feel that type of atmosphere on the field with a little chirping going back and forth.
“But that’s just the environment of Arizona football.”
Similar to Saguaro, Hamilton’s offense also struggled to find a rhythm against the Sabercats’ strong front-seven. Defensive ends Quintin Somerville and Tristan Monday often collapsed the pocket on Marchiol, while interior defensive lineman Alani Ma’afu and a host of others cleaned up.
The Huskies did find some success in the run game with Colorado transplant Noah Schmidt, who finished with 81 yards on 12 carries. Marchiol, who was 7-of-13 passing for 68 yards and an interception, added 38 yards on the ground and Hamilton’s only touchdown of the game on a 6-yard quarterback scamper up the middle.
Hamilton’s only other points came behind the leg of sophomore kicker Jacob Medina, who hit a pit of 23-yard field goals.
“This was huge for our school, this was huge for our program and huge for our community,” Zdebski said. “Everybody got to see us on national TV play a really good football team. I mean, we will probably have to play them again. But it was big for our team.”
The strong defensive play from both teams led to several miscues and penalties. There were 23 penalties combined for both teams for 177 total yards.
Zdebski said those mistakes would be addressed before Hamilton (3-0) faced Desert Vista (0-4) next week. Saguaro (2-1), meanwhile, will travel to face Horizon (3-1).
Zdebski said his team’s win over Saguaro will undoubtedly make an impact on the program in the future.
“Saguaro has a reputation in Arizona. They know how to win, and they know how to win tight games,” Zdebski said. “Being in this game, for us, will pay dividends not only this year but in the years to come for all the young kids on our sideline that got to dress out tonight.”