CASA GRANDE — It’s a puzzle no coach has been able to solve this season, and precious few have over the years. Just how do you stop Casa Grande Union’s offense?
Sure, a team could stack the box in hopes of stopping the running game, led by RJ Keeton. Why wouldn’t they? The senior has played only six games this year and yet has accumulated 809 yards and 13 touchdowns. Of course he should be a defense’s primary focus.
Well, except if you do that you’re then leaving the ball in the hands of Angel Flores, one of the top quarterbacks in the state. In his final season in a Cougar uniform, Flores completed 76% of his passes for 1,857 yards and 24 touchdowns, with only one interception. Let him have the ball, and he’ll find one of his big receivers — Demetrius Garrett, Anthony Flores and Kevin White Jr., all of them with at least 488 yards this season.
A team could argue that doing it that way would at least make the offense one-dimensional. Ah, but Flores is also formidable with his legs, running for 807 yards and nine touchdowns.
Put all these weapons together, and you have an offense that has averaged more than 43 points per game, and never scoring less than 26. And it’s led by a one-two punch in Keeton and Flores that started formulating many years ago and has flourished to now being one of the best combos in Arizona.
“We’ve just always been able to dominate and impose our will on other teams,” Angel Flores said. “We knew we were going to be able to do something special here.”
Along with many of the teammates who now have their eyes on a state championship title, Flores and Keeton first connected as members of the CG Crush youth football team. They remember the force they were as a team back then, and how excited they were to keep it going throughout their school days.
Those opportunities came early and often, with both players getting some playing time as freshmen, a rarity for a school as big as CG Union. But it was their sophomore year when the roots of the current success started to show, culminating in the 12th-seeded Cougars shocking No. 5 Sahuarita Walden Grove in the first round of the playoffs, and coming within three points of topping Goodyear Desert Edge in the quarterfinal.
With their arrival on the scene noted by all, the Cougars came into the 2020 season, when they went 6-1 in the regular season and made it all the way to the semifinals, which they lost 35-23 to Glendale Cactus.
Now, they are coming off an undefeated regular season, and they will only accept one result, to be state champions. With more playoff experience than most, they feel they know what it’s going to take to be there at the end.
“I learned to take nothing for granted, just work hard because there are always good teams with good players out there, so it’s about how prepared you are for the challenge,” Flores said. “Everyone has the mentality that we’re going to go in and dominate no matter who it is.”
Added Keeton, “We can’t overlook any opponent. We have to study them. We can’t play down to that level, we have to play to the full extent of where we can, to give it 110%.”
With both players having ambitions to play football at the next level, stats can be a big factor in what kind of offers they receive. But both Keeton and Flores say they keep that part of the process off their minds, subscribing to the belief that if they win big games, there will be plenty of attention to go around.
So when there’s a game like the one against Peoria where Keeton was showcased with 27 carries and three touchdowns, enough to earn him the Arizona Cardinals’ Player of the Week award, that’s OK with Flores. And when there’s a game like the one against Walden Grove this year where Keeton only got 11 touches, that’s OK too. It’s all about what is best for the team.
“If we win the game, we win the game. That’s all I care about at the end of the day,” Flores said. “Whether RJ runs for six or seven touchdowns, or I pass for a few touchdowns, as long as we win the game I’m happy.”
The two credit their dynamic chemistry to a few things, most importantly their offensive line that makes it all happen. Keeton remembers forming bonds with his childhood friends like center Nick Anaya, and how over the years they have become one impenetrable unit that lays the foundation for all the glory the skill players receive.
“They’re my brothers. We’ll ride into war for them,” Keeton said. “If they need something, I’m there for them, and if I need something, I know they’re gonna have my back. So for me and Angel to have them up front and blocking for us means a lot, because without them our offense literally can’t do anything.”
Despite their undefeated season, the Cougars are only ranked second in the playoffs, behind a Poston Butte team with two losses. In fact at one point, they were ranked as low as seventh. The players know why, that it’s because of their poor strength of schedule. But they can’t help but feel a little disrespected by the powers that be.
It’s not an unfamiliar feeling for Flores, who feels his city is often overlooked by those in the Tucson and Phoenix metro areas. And with no championships for the program since the 1950s, they know there is some pressure to bring glory to Casa Grande. But instead of hiding from all that, they’re ready to face it head on. And they hope the community comes along to join them on the ride.
“Just know that our fans can expect our full effort every single game,” Flores said. “We’ll do whatever we can do to make our city proud and chase that ring.”