ELOY — For the Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils, the objective all week was simple: win and you’re in.

Unfortunately for the Dust Devils, on the last day of the season the AIA awarded a forfeit win to Tucson Tanque Verde and giving them an opportunity to make the playoffs.

Despite the fallout from the AIA’s decision, and despite the Dust Devils being without many of their best players due to injury, Santa Cruz ended their whirlwind season on a high note, shutting out the Tucson Santa Rita Eagles 56-0.

Freshman quarterback Nathan Harris got the starting nod, with usual starter Max Rodriguez moving to the running back role, Harris threw three touchdowns in the game, showing that the Dust Devils are more than just a running team on offense.

Although the ruling acted as a dagger to the Dust Devils’ playoff hopes, the team decided to take the high road and put on a strong performance for their last game of the season.

“It was a whirlwind of emotions today with the AIA changing their rules and policies today, that definitely hurt our boys,” Santa Cruz head coach James Fitzgerald said. “But they are a resilient group, we have been injured and beaten up all year long, but once again they were resilient tonight and came out and finished senior night off with a great victory.”

Fitzgerald had high praise for his freshman signal caller as well, alluding to Harris receiving the starting job for next year’s squad.

“It’s really exciting for the future, Nate is a great young man and great leader,” Fitzgerald said. “To go along with all of those abilities on the field, he has produced a 4.0 GPA, which shows that he is taking things seriously. Going forward he will definitely be our quarterback, (Rodriguez) is going to make the transition to running back.”

With the 2021 season in the books, the Dust Devils will look to restock their talent pool, as notable seniors like Ricardo Alaniz, Wyatt Ogle, Tanzor Gil, Davin Ethington, Robert Maldonado, Haloa Hall and Roman Belloc all move on and graduate.

Although Fitzgerald said he has not really thought about next season yet, he is looking forward to the young guys on the team to get their time to shine and produce for the Dust Devils next year.

“We have a lot of freshman talent coming back, so it is going to be exciting to see what they develop into as sophomores,” Fitzgerald said. “Our sophomore and junior classes are a little bit smaller, but I think there are some kids on campus that didn’t play this year that will definitely come out next year. So we are gonna try to build up the program that way.”

Now that Fitzgerald’s first season as head coach at Santa Cruz is behind him, he reflected on how even though the team had their backs against the wall for a majority of the season, the group was strong and never backed down to the challenges they faced.

“We had so many things go on this year, suspensions, injuries, COVID, so the resiliency of this group was top-notch,” Fitzgerald said. “To lose half of your senior class and 16 of our 22 starters, it was just too much for us to overcome. But I'm really proud of how this group stuck it out all year long.”

The win will put the Dust Devils at the .500 mark to end their season, going 5-5 on the year.

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David Church is a reporter covering Eloy, Arizona City and sports. He can be reached at dchurch@pinalcentral.com.

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