GILBERT — The Santa Cruz Valley Dust Devils took the first step in defending their 2A state championship Friday night. With the reigning champs handling business on the road, beating the Gilbert San Tan Charter Roadrunners 36-6.

Santa Cruz had their backs against the wall before kickoff, as there was a COVID outbreak that left the team with only two of its freshman, none of its sophomores, and only half of its juniors.

However, despite being short staffed with only 17 eligible players, the team rallied and defeated their fellow 2A rivals by double digits.

The game started slow for both teams, with only a passing touchdown for San Tan Charter, and a rushing touchdown for Santa Cruz from senior running back Wyatt Ogle. However, both the Dust Devil offense and defense would pick up at the right time.

Senior running back Ricardo Alaniz took over the game for Santa Cruz. recording four rushing touchdowns, with his second rushing score going for 62 yards, and his fourth going for 46 yards.

“Rico is awesome, he does everything we ask of him and then some,” coach James Fitzgerald said. “They were really keen on Steve Calvin and (Ogle) on the outside, so Rico really pounded them inside. And right when they thought he was going to pound them inside, he bounced it out on some good runs, he was able to make guys miss and he was a feature back tonight for sure.”

For Alaniz, this is the chance to be the true starting running back on the team, after backing up Hunter Ogle on last year’s squad. Alaniz said it feels good to get the first win of the season and to have a great performance and show up for his team.

There were a number of times that the Dust Devils were lured offside by the opposing offense, but Fitzgerald sees this as his players just getting back into football form.

“You know that’s kind of the nerves of the first game of the season from the guys,” Fitzgerald said. “Guys are just trying to make a play, it is something we definitely have to correct and clean up though.”

This win marks the first win for the Dust Devils under Fitzgerald as head coach.

“It feels awesome to get that first win, I’m really proud of these guys coming down here, we only suited up 17 guys tonight but they played their absolute hearts out, gave it everything they’ve got and we got a really big win tonight.” Fitzgerald said.

While the first win of the season is behind them, it is unclear whether next week’s home match up against Highland Prep will go on as planned.

“As of now, there is still a game, even though we are in virtual (learning) I have not been told anything otherwise, we will get more information Monday morning,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t see any reason as to why we would need to shut down, are kids are healthy and our kids need this. It is an amazing outlet for both them and the community, but all we can do right now is wait and see what happens.”

Santa Cruz Valley football season opener against San Tan Charter Friday August 27, 2021.

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