MARICOPA — Coach Rick Skinner called it the best game they’ve played this season, and it’s tough to argue the point, but on a night where Maricopa had many opportunities to get their first win since Sept. 10, their efforts fell just short.

The Rams (2-7, 0-4 in region) showcased an offense that was more balanced and efficient than it had been before, with Devin Huffman and Kyree Washington shining in the passing game, and Caleb Garcia taking on a tremendous load at running back throughout the night. But they couldn’t overcome three early touchdowns from the Gilbert Tigers (4-5, 1-3 in region) and lost on Senior Night 21-19.

“The seniors played their butts off, and everyone else worked so hard for the seniors,” Skinner said. “I’m just proud they kept going, and they didn’t quit. We played hard until the final seconds ticked off, and that’s all we ask for as coaches.”

The Maricopa defense looked helpless against the Tigers early in the game, giving up three touchdowns in their first three defensive drives, all on big scoring plays. The first two came on deep passes from Dan Hesse that put Gilbert up 14-0 in the first four minutes, and the third a 61-yard run by Cooper Zellner.

“They just made big plays, and usually when you have two evenly matched teams, it’s the team that makes the fewest mistakes who come out on top,” Skinner said. “Those were big plays, and they jumped up on us, but that didn’t cost us the game. We made mistakes throughout that hurt us.”

While no team would complain about getting such big plays early on, it did seem to have an effect on the game as it went along, as the Tiger defense spent a lot of time on the field in the first half. Thanks to drive-extending runs by Garcia and efficient throwing from Huffman, the Rams sustained long drives that allowed them to get a grip on the flow.

Their first scoring drive ended with Garcia running straight through a guy on a 4-yard run, then on the next one they took off a whopping eight minutes. It looked like it might be all fo naught as Maricopa was stuck in a 4th-and-21 situation, but Huffman rolled to his right and found Washington near the sideline, and the receiver ran the ball in for a touchdown to bring the score to 21-13.

“We found something we like, and it worked out as we hoped,” Skinner said. “Caleb ran the ball amazing, and that’s how we want to do it. We want to move the ball on the ground, and we were able to do that more tonight.”

Now with plenty of rest, the Ram defense finally stepped up, forcing a 3-and-out to give the offense a chance to tie the game. However, when they got into Gilbert territory, they were plagued by dropped passes that would have led to prime scoring position, including on a pivotal 4th down.

Still, they had another chance after forcing a punt, and seeing the snap on that punt sail well high. They had the ball back with 2:04 left in the half on the Tiger 48, but after yet another drop on fourth down, Gilbert got the ball back with 1:07 left. This almost turned into a disastrous turn of events to go into the break, but with 0.3 seconds left, the Tigers missed a short field goal to keep the score within eight points.

In the second half, the scoring was much harder to come by. The two teams traded fumbles early in the third quarter, and there were four total interceptions between the teams.

The only score in the half came late in the third when Huffman once again connected with Washington, who was wide open in the endzone from 25 yards out, but the 2-point conversion was unsuccessful, keeping Maricopa behind.

This gave the Rams more than a quarter to get the ball back and at least get a field goal to win, but between penalties and turnovers, they were never able to get back to the successful flow that they had found earlier in the game.

“We got into some situations where it was second and forever, or third and forever,” Skinner said. “That took us out of our run game.”

Still, Garcia had 30 carries, totaling 158 yards and a touchdown. After completing eight of his first 10 passes, Huffman ended his night 10-29 118 yards, two touchdowns and three interceptions in his second ever start at quarterback. Of those, 77 yards were to Washington.

The Rams will have one more opportunity to get a win before their season ends, traveling to Gilbert to face Campo Verde (3-6, 1-3 in region). Despite not having hopes for a playoff berth, Skinner isn’t worried about his players staying motivated.

“We just want to get better every week, and we did this week so hopefully we can do the same thing this week and go out with a win on Friday,” Skinner said. “That would be great for the seniors.”

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