For the second year in a row, the Pusch Ridge Lions began their season with a loss, won their remaining regular season games to go unbeaten in their region, then lost at home in the playoffs.
When this year's fourth-seeded Lions lost to the 13th-seeded Camp Verde Cowboys, 35-7, on Friday, the playoff loss wasn't nearly as disappointing.
"It was more of a challenge," said coach Bob Vance. "This team has more heart."
Senior kicker Chad Springetti was one of the few Lions who played on all three Pusch Ridge squads that went unbeaten in the region.
"The odds were against us," Springetti said. "God's blessed us every season."
Camp Verde's Tanner Rezzonico burned the Lions with 195 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns. The Cowboys, who rushed for more than 300 yards, were the biggest team the Lions have played, according to Vance, better than a 13th seed and 5-5 regular season might indicate.
The Cowboys opened the scoring with a 56-yard scoring drive. The big play was a 32-yard run by Rezzonico which put the ball on the Lion 18. A few plays later, quarterback Deshon Tripp ran 12 yards for a touchdown.
The next score came when Rezzonico picked off quarterback Tyler Goodwillie and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown to give the Cowboys a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter.
The Lions trailed 21-0 at the half, as the offense sputtered all night.
Ironically, the Lions' only touchdown, a 50-yard run by Goodwillie in the third quarter, came after a bad snap.
Pusch Ridge was trying to mount a comeback. A defensive stop on the next series gave the ball back to the Lions, trailing 21-7.
But, after the defensive stop, the Lions fumbled the ball away. It was one of six turnovers on the night.
Goodwillie had 85 yards rushing on 17 carries. Stanton led the Lions with three catches for 30 yards. Pusch Ridge's offense mustered seven first downs. With three plays for more than 15 yards on the night, the Lions had a hard time getting big plays.
Coach Vance pointed out that Goodwillie, a natural running back, was asked to play quarterback after the graduation of last year's all-2A quarterback Greg Schimke. The Lions usually turned to the legs of Goodwillie and running back Tyler Vance. Goodwillie completed six of 12 passes for 74 yards and two interceptions against the Cowboys.
"We're a young team," Vance said, "with little experience."
While there are 14 seniors, few had much varsity experience coming into the season.
Next year, Vance has high hopes for Chas Dudley to be the Lion quarterback. Inexperience and size may be continued challenges.
"We're always the midgets," Vance said. "Some people felt we wouldn't be at .500."
Springetti kicked a 52-yard punt, a high point for the Lions.
"The team chemistry was better than any other team I've been on," Springetti said. "Every time I messed up, I felt like I let my brothers down.
"This year was the best year I could hope for."