COOLIDGE — A decades-long rivalry between the pride of two neighboring towns added another tense edition on Friday night, with both teams looking to turn around their losing seasons. But thanks to just a couple big plays, only the home team was able to do so.
Whether it be credited to good defense or lackluster offense, Coolidge (3-3) and Santa Cruz Valley (2-4) spent most of Friday’s game trying to get anything going on offense. It wasn’t until late in the third quarter that Tad Lynch took a short pass and ran with it 96 yards to finally put a score on the board. As it turned out, those seven points were enough as the Bears ground out a 13-7 victory over the Dust Devils.
“We were able to make a play. That’s all it is,” said Coolidge coach Rodger Schenks. “We’ve got good kids, they just have to believe in themselves.”
Coolidge switched between Connor Ferguson and Guage Froman throughout the night, trying to get any spark they could out of a passing game that has remained mostly dormant this season. Neither fared particularly well in the first half, though the two actually connected when Ferguson caught Froman’s pass for 40 yards to give the Bears their only red zone appearance before the break. However, penalties and a sack brought Coolidge back to midfield, and the game went into halftime scoreless.
“On offense, we just tried to come out and do different things. But I don’t know, we just have to get better at it,” Schenks said. “It’s just about people stepping up. It’s game six, it’s not like they’re young anymore. They’ve played a lot of football.”
But the biggest moment of the first half came before that. With neither offense moving the ball at all, Adrian Brown picked off Froman at the Bears’ 20-yard line, creating an instant scoring opportunity. It took eight plays, but the Dust Devils got the ball to the 2 on fourth down. Quarterback Max Rodriguez found a receiver wide open in the back of the endzone, but the ball went through his hands and the relieved Bears got the ball back.
“It sucks. We had a guy wide open over the middle for a touchdown pass and it slipped right through his hands,” said Santa Cruz coach James Fitzgerald. “We had another one on a slant where if he caught it we would have had a touchdown. So there are two touchdowns lost, and and that was the difference in the game for sure.”
The teams combined for seven turnovers — four for Santa Cruz and three for Coolidge — and there was much consternation coming from both sidelines about the officiating, which kept the offenses from getting the few big plays they mustered. Schenks, in particular, got upset over numerous illegal blocking penalties, including one that wiped out a 55-yard touchdown by Lynch.
“We’ve got seven guys who think we came to watch them, and it’s ridiculous,” Schenks said. “But that’s their past with me. The kids did a good job playing through everything. I’ll take care of that stuff.”
Finally, with 3:21 left in the third quarter, the scoreless tie was broken. Pinned deep in their own territory, Ferguson ran out to his right, and found Lynch open for a short pass. The running back then showed off what he does best, dodging tacklers all the way to a 96-yard touchdown.
“It was just one blown coverage, just one error there that led to that long touchdown pass,” Fitzgerald said. “Other than that, the defense played their butts off all night.”
This seemed to open the game up a bit, as both teams moved the ball more effectively throughout the fourth quarter. However, those turnovers cost numerous opportunities to score. The Dust Devils forced Lynch to cough up the ball twice for two lost fumbles. But the Bears got a fumble recovery of their own, along with interceptions by sophomores Gavin Gunter and Jalil Bishop.
“Our sophomores have been doing a great job all year,” Schenks said. “They’re playing above their age. It’s crazy, because they should be playing JV football, but they’re stepping up and playing big games, and doing a really good job. The future of our program looks great, even though we’re still excited for what we’ve got going on now.”
The Bears’ second touchdown came after Lynch put them near the goal line with a 46-yard run, then punched it in from there to go up 13-0.
With 25 second left, Rodriguez threw a nine-yard pass to Brown, who wrestled the ball away from the defender to get the Dust Devils on the board. They attempted an onside kick, but the Bears fell on it, then knelt the rest of the clock away to come out with a tense victory.
“It’s tough when you lose a rivalry game, especially when it’s a close one,” Fitzgerald said. “This one was a battle from the kickoff to the end of the game.”
Both teams now look to put the past behind them as they enter region play knowing that whoever wins will get into the playoffs. For Coolidge, that starts next week against Mesa Eastmark (3-3), which is having the best season of its young program, featuring a multi-faceted passing attack.
“We just have to stay focused,” Schenks said. “We had tough freedom games, and we’re gonna have tough region games. We just have to get after it.”
For Santa Cruz, now with a four-game losing streak coming off a state championship season, the memory has to be even shorter as they will likely have to win the region to make the playoffs. They play Tucson Catalina (1-5, with the win coming by forfeit) on Friday.
“It’s a whole new season,” Fitzgerald said. “The region games are what matter most, so the way I look at it, our playoffs just started in October instead of November now. We’re ready to go. We have some guys coming back from injury the next two weeks, so we’re hoping to get in full strength for the first time all season.”