Cactus High School and Ironwood High School came up short in the AIA football championship games.
In the 4A title game Dec. 11, Cactus fell in a heartbreaker to Mesquite, 39-38.
With 10 minutes left, the Cobras had a 14-point lead—but Mesquite came roaring back, taking the title with a last-minute touchdown and two-point conversion.
Also Dec. 11, the Sunrise Mountain Mustangs romped to the school’s first football championship with a 42-20 victory over the Ironwood Eagles in the 5A title game.
Despite the loss, Ironwood coach Chris Rizzo said he was incredibly proud of his team, especially the senior class.
The class of 2021 were sophomores when he took over as coach two years ago. He has seen the group mature and become leaders. He hopes their work ethic and the team’s first title game appearance since 2002—before most of the players on the field were even born—will spur many successful years to come.
“There are springboard kind of classes that you get, and there are classes that will launch you into the next level. And I’m hoping that the juniors and sophomores take a piece, an eighth, of what this senior class has left for Ironwood and run with it,” Rizzo said.
Ironwood senior quarterback Will Haskell was the leader of the team this season.
Haskell took Ironwood to an early lead in the championship game.
The Eagles topped the Mustangs 20-11 in the regular season, and it looked like history might repeat itself.
Ironwood took a lead on the game’s opening drive behind stellar play from Haskell. He scrambled out of broken pass plays for several first downs, and a long touchdown run put the Eagles up 7-0.
The Mustangs responded with their run game, as always. They moved the ball downfield, but the Eagles halted two drives in the first half by forcing fumbles. Ironwood utilized the advantageous field position earned by the second fumble recovered to score again, going up 14-7 late in the first half.
Sunrise Mountain kept running the ball, though. With under a minute remaining in the second quarter, Bogard scored a touchdown.
The Mustangs fumbled on the two-point attempt, but senior running back Tommy Arnold—who had fumbled the first two times—redeemed himself by picking up the loose ball, shedding a tackler and scoring to give Sunrise Mountain a 15-14 lead at halftime. He would finish the game with 205 yards and two scores.
“I knew when we pulled ahead that they were going to break down, and we took advantage of that,” Bogard said.
The runs kept coming in the third quarter. The fumbling stopped.
While the Mustangs kept scoring, the Eagles could not. Sunrise Mountain’s defense began to dominate at the line of scrimmage. Sunrise Mountain rushed Haskell and contained him from the outside to keep him in the pocket, knowing that his running ability in the open field might kill them otherwise.
The Eagles punched in one short rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter, giving a sliver of hope.
But Julian Esber took that hope away quickly, responding with a 62-yard rushing touchdown, his second of the night, to put the game away.
Sunrise Mountain finishes their best season with a 10-2 victory. The Mustangs will have to replace the talent of their largest senior class if they want to reach this point again.
Coach Decker will have to rely on an infusion of youth, taking after the 2021 graduates.