Cactus falls in 5A State Championship

In its first year in 5A competition Cactus football reached the State Championship, but fell to Gilbert Higley. (Dave Minton/Staff photographer)

At ASU Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, the AIA 5A State Championship game featured a battle between the No. 4-seeded Glendale Cactus Cobras and No. 3-seeded Gilbert Higley Knights — a showdown between the East and West valleys.

In the end, though, the Knights struck down the Cobras, 41-21, to secure the school’s first State Championship in school history.

“It’s awesome to be the first to do anything, like this team has had a myriad of firsts,” Higley head coach Eddy Zubey said. “So, to be able to be the first team, they’re always going to be remembered in the Higley lore to be able to be the first team to win at all, to do it all, so it’s awesome. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to accomplish, and I’m just happy that I did.”

The game wasn’t short of storylines during the week leading up.

The eventual champion Higley had been reallocated to 5A after only getting two wins last year in 6A. The change fueled the Knights this year, as they came out of the gates quickly, tacking on four straight wins to start the season.

The Knights carried the momentum through to the end of the season, only dropping two games on the year. The now-8-2 team entered the 5A conference playoffs and kept rolling, breezing through Waddell Canyon View and winning two very close games against the No. 6 seed Goodyear Desert Edge and No. 2 seed Scottsdale Desert Mountain.

Cactus was quite the opposite, as they were promoted from 4A to 5A this season and weren’t expected to reach the playoffs, let alone a State Championship game.

The newly promoted Cobras got off to a slow start, being essentially written off through five games with a measly 2-3 record. But the Cinderella story was just starting, as they went on to win the final five games of the regular season.

Come playoff time, Cactus was tested on three occasions, with a close victory over Surprise Willow Canyon and surprise wins over No. 5 seed Scottsdale Horizon and No. 1 seed Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep, becoming the only team in the Arizona state championship pool to be from the West Valley.

“I’m proud of our kids and proud of our program and our community,” Cactus head coach Brian Belles said. “And really just, you know, thrilled to represent the west side in a State Championship game.”

The gameplay itself was a back-and-forth affair, as each team had its moments to shine.

After surrendering an early touchdown to Highley quarterback Jamar Malone, Cactus rallied back and vaulted themselves into the lead. This came on the back of a 51-yard sprint from running back Damian Jiles, and immediately followed up with a monster interception for a touchdown from two-way sophomore Nikko Boncore-Montoya. Capping off the scoring spree would be senior leader Will Galvan, punching in a 17-yard score to set the game at 21-6 with just over five minutes left in the half.

The Knights composed themselves, halting a red-hot Cobra offense and taking advantage of the ensuing punt, which gave them positive field position.

Malone and his running back Daxen Hall marched the offense down the field with Hall getting the endzone nod. After yet another stop by the Higley defense, Malone found receiver Kaden Milner for a 23-yard touchdown. All of a sudden, the game was down to just one point, as the score was 21-20 Cactus leading into the half.

“We knew towards the beginning of the second quarter, we were going to have to pick it up,” Malone said. “And to be honest, we just made a couple of simple errors. As soon as we fixed those, I felt like we were clicking.”

Clicking they were, as once the half turned, it was all Higley.

They started the half with an 11-play touchdown drive, where Malone and Hall chunked the offense down the field, yet again finished off by a 1-yard score. The Knights’ next turn with the ball went similarly, with Malone locating a wide-open Carter Hancock for a 33-yard strike, expanding the lead to 34-21.

The scoreline would continue as such, despite many Cactus efforts to move the ball down the field. The Cobras were eventually rattled toward the end of the game, committing numerous unsportsmanlike penalties due to frustration. Galvan, the true senior leader, was the shining light to his teammates.

“I told them that we can’t lose like that,” Galvan said. “If they won fair and square, then I told them we have to lose fair and square.”

Malone would walk in for a game-sealing score late in the fourth quarter, ending the game at 41-21.

Led by Galvan, the Cactus Cobras’ 2022 season put the program on the map as one of the top teams in 5A.

“Cactus is everything to me,” Galvan said. “It has been so important in shaping me into the young man that I am today.”