A little more than two minutes remained on the clock. Rishard Davis bent over, his face buried into his knees. The emotion struck deep within his bones. The Dust Devils were state champions.
As I watched this scene unfold from the sideline Saturday afternoon during the 2A state title game at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, it hit me how much this meant to Davis.
In his seventh year as head coach of Santa Cruz Valley, Davis brought the state championship trophy home to Eloy after a dominating 42-7 win over Benson.
Santa Cruz finished the season 9-1, its only loss coming to Casa Grande Union, which reached the 4A semifinals.
When the final buzzer sounded, a few of his players dumped the obligatory Gatorade jug of water over his head and back.
Moments later, during the trophy presentation, Davis lifted the gleaming golden football over his head in a power thrust — as if he were lifting the weight of frustration of previous Santa Cruz teams that came agonizingly close to ultimate glory but fell short.
I got chills when he raised that trophy, which elicited a loud roar of cheers from his players.
There was no easy street to the mountaintop for the Dust Devils. They had made the state semifinals in three of the previous four seasons, including a state title game appearance in 2017.
For many years, Santa Cruz was a major power. Saturday was the school’s eighth football state title.
But that isn’t what Davis inherited when he took over as coach in 2014.
In the four years before he was hired, the Dust Devils went 6-34. They had not posted a winning record since 2007.
Bringing the state title back to Eloy for the first time since 1990 had Davis searching for words, his stoic veneer punctured.
“I don’t even know what it feels like right now,” he told me after the game. “Just a lot of emotions right now. All I can tell you, I’m just happy we’ve done it.”
And while Davis has led the program back to prominence and consistent success, he mentioned the adversity players dealt with during the team’s one down year of late — a 4-6 finish in 2018 when the Dust Devils missed the playoffs.
He said the players could have given up after that year. Instead, they came back stronger.
The 2019 team went 10-3, eliminated by eventual champion Eagar Round Valley in the state semifinals.
This year, the season was shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the season was set up for the seniors to come full circle from 2017.
In 2017, the current seniors were freshmen, including star running back Hunter Ogle. He and brothers Juan and Diego Castillo-Lopez even started for that team as freshmen, Davis recalled.
Santa Cruz was 12-0 entering the 2017 championship game. Those freshmen played in that title game thriller, a heartbreaking 28-27 loss to Thatcher in overtime that ended on a controversial call.
How did it feel for Davis to watch that freshman group go out as champions in 2020? He said he was “feeling too much” at the moment.
“I’m just happy for them,” he said after pausing a few seconds. “I can’t explain it. We believe in them. But the thing that we try to tell them all the time [is], if I believe in them more than they believe in themselves, it’s not going to happen. So I think it says a lot [about] this group.”
The community support in Eloy is something Davis does not take for granted.
Davis grew up in Alabama, where football is religion and the entire town gets behind its teams. He feels a similar level of support from the Eloy community.
“I feel like you’ve got to have it,” he said. “It’s big. It feeds the boys, and it keeps us coaches on our toes because the community wants to see the teams perform. I like it. It’s kind of like a pressure and a boost at the same time. I think you need that to win championships at schools.”
Ogle, who was as dominant as ever with 244 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the title game, was all smiles after the win. He and the other freshmen on the 2017 team finished what they started.
“It’s a great feeling, obviously, to win state,” he said. “I just give that to my team. All year we worked hard and since our freshman year, since seventh grade, we’ve all been together ... I’m just happy we finally broke the barrier and got it done.”
To Ogle, it wasn’t just talent on the field that defined the 2020 Dust Devils.
“We had heart this year, and we pushed through when we needed to,” he said.