Two schools separated by .7 miles of asphalt and an occasional saguaro met under the bright lights for the first time on Friday.
The two factions, in host Pusch Ridge Christian Academy and visiting Canyon del Oro High School, traded barbs for much of the first half.
The Lions (1-2) took control of the game early, with senior quarterback Jonathan Stanton finding receiver Evan Lovett for a 29-yard passing touchdown in the first quarter.
The tide of the evening turned on a brilliant running play by CDO sophomore running back Stevie Rocker, who took Zach Eidenschink’s handoff 68 yards for the team’s opening score.
Rocker wasn’t done, scoring on a screen pass in the waning seconds of the first half, snatching Eidenschink’s throw and gliding 30 yards untouched into the end zone to give the Dorados a 13-7 lead at the half.
The Dorados (2-1) never relinquished their lead, with receiver Jose Cruz scoring on a five-yard rush to open the second half.
Eidenschink added two more touchdowns in the second half, with a one-yard run and 51-yard passing score to Cruz to close out the scoring, capping off an impressive 33-7 victory.
Rocker expressed pride in his team’s ability to close out a talented Lions squad on the road, with the sophomore racking up 213 rushing yards and a touchdown on 15 carries, rushing for 148 yards in the first half alone.
“My first halves are kind of just to get a feel of what their defense is doing,” Rocker said. “I like to kind of see how they read and how they do things, then I kind of get a little momentum going and then I start pushing on from there.”
Longtime Dorados coach Dustin Peace was impressed by the effort that Rocker and Eidenschink exhibited on Friday. Peace praised his team’s ability to overcome the Lions’ style of smash-mouth, run-heavy offense, earning a hard-fought win against a quality opponent.
“That first quarter they got to play their game for a little while,” Peace said. “And once we got some stops, our defense had a huge turnover and kind of had some big plays. Stevie took over with that big long play. Getting that play before half was also crucial. But we knew we just had to get the ball.”
Peace is happy with how his team is playing, after a tough 38-37 loss to the Flowing Wells Caballeros in their opening game three weeks ago.
They haven’t missed a beat since, rolling past Apache Junction two weeks ago, 55-26, before earning a resounding victory on Friday. Peace attributed much of the team’s success to their familiarity with each other in all aspects of the game, allowing them to fly down the field.
“We had a great opportunity up at Apache Junction against a good football team and we really showed what we’re capable of and then we turned around with a great performance tonight,” Peace said. “So I think we’re heading in the right direction, without a doubt. We’re growing, we’re building, and that’s what you want early in the season.”
A tough stretch for the Lions
Jonathan Stanton described the Lions’ early season frustrations, coming off back-to-back losses to the Dorados and Walden Grove.
The senior quarterback, who earned 54 passing and 25 rushing yards against the Dorados, believes the team will use their first three games as a learning opportunity.
“I think we’ll take away some positive things because we really haven't played to our potential yet,” Stanton said. “[In the] Walden Grove game we had six turnovers and that's something we can fix, obviously. And then this game we had a few mistakes; a touchdown called back, and we were fighting with them for the first half. I'm not too worried. I think we just got to clean some stuff up. And we'll be alright.”
Stanton said a key for the Lions is to keep up their energy, finding a way to channel the success they felt on their opening drive touchdown against the Dorados for an entire game.
He’s confident last year’s runner-up in Division 3A will do just that, ahead of their home game against Snowflake on Friday night.
“We always want to get the ball and score first, set the tone of the game,” Stanton said. “I think we’ve just got to make sure we keep fighting the whole game. Put in a full four quarters where we're going as hard as we can. So yeah, I mean, if we do that, we'll be alright.”
Keeping the momentum alive
For the Dorados, keeping their early season two-game winning streak alive against district foe Amphitheater this Friday rests on their ability to make big plays when it matters most.
Rocker, who’s rushed for 611 yards and 7 touchdowns in the Dorados first three games, believes the team’s best days are on the periphery. For now, the sophomore is proud of the team’s ability to thwart a strong Lions squad in a volatile environment, building momentum for the start of conference play.
“This is big for us, this is really big for us,” Rocker said. “Because a team like this coming from state runner ups for them and for us to come out and do something like this it puts a lot in our name for that.”
Peace is excited about the team’s potential, given how well they’ve played on both sides of the ball in the last two weeks. He believes the team turned a corner from its opening week loss, gaining momentum and confidence that could propel them to the state playoffs in a few months.
“That's the deal is they're close. And they're resilient. And for them to be growing in these steps is very exciting for us, without a doubt,” Peace said. “I thought we were going to be really, really good this year and I still believe that now. And now that we're showing these patterns and these steps. It’s great to see our players have success early in the season like this.”
The key for Peace is getting his players ready for a Panthers team that’s 1-3 this season, making sure they play as well as they did against the Lions and Prospectors.
“I mean, we'll take a look at the tape and we'll clean up some of our mistakes,” Peace said. “So, we'll work on that throughout the week. Get some guys healthy and stay hungry. You know, stay hungry and keep playing football.”
High School Football Scoreboard:
Friday, Sept. 7
Sabino 21, Catalina Foothills 17
Sahuaro 42, Marcos de Niza 13
Flowing Wells 40, Amphitheater 12
Casteel 56, Mountain View 0
Pueblo 7, Cholla 0
Marana 35, Desert View 0
Tanque Verde 21, Rincon/University 7
Friday, Sept. 14
[All games at 7 p.m.]
Amphitheater at CDO
Mountain View at Tucson High School
Paradise Valley at Flowing Wells
Centennial at Ironwood Ridge
Snowflake at Pusch Ridge Christian Academy
Winslow at Tanque Verde
Cholla at Sahuaro
Rincon/University at Cienega
Salpointe Catholic at Cactus
Williams Field at Marana
Sabino at Blue Ridge