CASA GRANDE — It took guts and toughness, but the Cougars made history Friday, advancing to the state semifinals for the first time ever with a 47-30 win over Peoria in the 4A quarterfinals.
The game featured wild ups and downs and big plays on both sides, as neither team could seize control of the game. That all changed when No. 1 Casa Grande (7-1) outscored No. 8 Peoria (4-4) 20-0 in the fourth quarter, pulling away from the Panthers late.
A raucous celebration ensued when the final buzzer sounded, as Casa Grande players mobbed each other and yelled while enveloping coach Jake Barro.
“This is huge for everybody,” Barro said. “It’s just a lot of emotions. I’m just very proud of these kids, and we’ve been building for years and years and years, six years to be exact ... this was kind of always the goal, and there’s still a goal after that, obviously.”
That other goal is to win the state championship.
But Casa Grande had to first get through a very game Peoria team that came to play. On the first play from scrimmage, Panthers running back Cameron Mack took it to the house for 60 yards.
The game was defined by big plays on offense and defense.
Early in the first quarter, Barro pulled a play out of his bag of tricks. On fourth-and-21, the Cougars executed a fake punt, going with a direct snap to RJ Keeton, who ran past everyone for a 44-yard touchdown.
Keeton rushed for 214 yards and three touchdowns, raising his total to 18 for the season. He also had one reception for 42 yards.
And the Casa Grande defense forced five turnovers, including three interceptions. The biggest of those was a 13-yard interception return for a TD by Justin Campbell early in the fourth quarter, which gave the Cougars a 41-30 lead.
“The pick six ... was when I knew we were gonna win the game,” Barro said. “I knew we could run on them if we just did everything right.”
In addition to Keeton’s 214 yards, quarterback Angel Flores ran for 110 yards and a TD. Flores also completed 13 of 21 passes for 187 yards with a touchdown and a tipped interception.
What stood out above his stat line was the way he continually picked up key first downs in big moments, often with his legs but also throwing the ball.
“Very few kids possess that at the high school level,” Barro said of Flores’ ability to make big plays at in crucial situations. “You always talk about professional-level guys, and they just have the intangibles, they have that ‘it’ ... when the game’s on the line, for a guy to just gut-check and make it happen ... he’s a special young man, not just as a player but as a competitor.”
Peoria stayed in the game largely because of receiver Brandon Price, who was electric. He had a 50-yard TD run, a 75-yard TD catch and finished with four catches for 165 yards.
The leading receiver for Casa Grande was Jett Hale, who caught three passes for 80 yards, including a 30-yard TD in the second quarter.
Middle linebacker and defensive leader Jake Thomas had a fumble recovery in the second quarter that led to a 75-yard score by Keeton. The three interceptions went to Campbell, Deandrey Kelley and Andon Eager.
Casa Grande led 21-16 at the half, after Peoria kicker Angel Islas drilled a 30-yard field goal to end the second quarter.
The Cougars rose to the challenge when the going got tough in a big playoff game, proving once again this team is unlike any Casa Grande team that has come before it.