The Pusch Ridge Lions were mere yards away from their first touchdown of the game against the Canyon Del Oro Dorados last Friday night—and it all came down to a goal line stand.
The Lions trailed 14-0 at the time, but despite the score, they marched down the field some 70 yards on 14 plays. After more than seven minutes of game time, it was first and goal in the shadow of the Dorados’ end zone.
What happened next may define the course of CDO’s football season, because that touchdown would never come.
Dustin Peace’s Dorados stood tall and stopped the Lions’ steadfast ground attack in its tracks, paving the way for a 21-0 home victory.
That goal-line stand allowed the Dorados to maintain a two-touchdown lead, built on the back of two rushing touchdowns, one by junior quarterback Montana Neustadter and the other by junior back Alex Maldonado.
Peace didn’t mince words when he described the importance of the team’s defensive mettle on that drive.
“If we keep playing defense like this, we’re going to go a long way,” he said. “The biggest character stop of the season is first and goal from the 5, fellas.”
Peace praised his team’s ability to earn their fourth straight victory over a Lions squad that the longtime CDO coach heaped praise upon.
“To be in the position that we’re in this year, against a really good football team, and to still be 4-0, that’s special,” Peace said. “[Pusch Ridge] is going to be a really good team. They’re a good team and very well-coached, so we’re happy to get out of here with a win.”
The Dorados’ defensive mettle propelled them to a 4-0 record for the season, after previously beating Flowing Wells, Prescott and Apache Junction to open the year.
Peace’s squad is off to its best start since the 2010 season. That year, the Dorados finished as the runner-up in their division, losing to Scottsdale’s Saguaro in the state title game a year after winning it all.
Last week’s contest commemorated that 2009 Dorados team that went 14-0 on the way to the school’s last state title.
The Dorados’ most recent effort, against the Lions, was far from perfect, according to coaches and players alike, but it was more than enough to get the job done on a cloudy evening in Oro Valley.
Senior running back Gavin Davis, who led all players with 128 rushing yards on 20 carries, said the team’s performance to-date is just the start of what they’re capable of overall.
Davis, like Peace, knows how injury-ridden the team’s roster currently is, with several expected starters missing significant time so far. Despite the depleted roster, Davis is confident the team, which next faces district foe, Amphitheater, on the road this Friday, is doing everything it can to stay afloat given the obstacles they’ve faced.
“It’s big-time to move on to [4-0],” Davis said. “Our team, we want to keep getting better. Each week we want to take the challenge. We want to roll with the punches, and we want to keep giving our own punches.”
Neustadter, who finished the night with 101 rushing yards on 10 carries, including a highlight 52-yard score in the game’s opening stanza, believes the Dorados can still improve.
“We’ve just got to keep playing hard,” he said. “Even though we’re on fire, we can’t take a game off. We just need to keep pushing through it to get to that next game and keep going from there.”
For longtime Pusch Ridge Christian Academy coach Jerry Harris, Friday’s defeat serves as a blueprint for a young team moving forward.
Harris said scheduling difficult opponents, like Peace’s CDO squad, can benefit his players as they get to learn the ropes against the best possible competition.
“I think that anytime you lose you learn more about yourself than when you win, typically,” he said. “It’s just human nature.”
Harris and the Lions will look to do just that a week from now, when they make the long trek to northeast Arizona to face Snowflake High School.
He hopes the team’s younger players can learn a lot from the difficult road environment that they faced at CDO, with a near sell-out crowd that ebbed and flowed with each snap of the game.
“Playing the tough non-conference schedule, in my mind, is always a better idea,” he said. “Different coaches have different philosophies, but I’d much rather schedule up, and find out where you really are against a good program like CDO, than I would schedule down and feel good about ourselves, and then get whacked in the conference.”
For the Dorados, next week brings a road game with the Panthers, who are 3-1 this year, coming off consecutive victories over Vista Grande and Tanque Verde.
Peace is looking forward to seeing what his team, and the defensive unit in particular, can do against the Panthers.
For one night at least, Peace could rest easy, knowing that his injury-ravaged roster did its job to keep the squad’s record unblemished.
Peace praised the effort that Neustadter and others on offense put in, as well as the work done by the Dorados big guys in the trenches.
“They came out here trying to take care of business as a football program. And again, last week started like this week,” Peace said. “Montana goes big, but they’re a good football club and they kept themselves in the game. We played a good game defensively, but it’s good to be 4-0.”