Sunrise Mountain, ranked No. 1 in 4A this season, has played 14 seasons of varsity football and been one of the top programs for the past seven years. But the Mustangs did something they had never done Nov. 10 against Cave Creek Cactus Shadows.
The Mustangs made school history with their 49-13 victory over the Falcons in front of a packed house by advancing into the semifinals for the first time in school history.
“Wow, this just feels so great because these kids have worked hard all week and all season and to be here for the first time is an amazing feeling,” head coach Steve Decker said. “(Cactus Shadows) came out with a great game plan and they were forcing some mistakes on us and we made adjustments and the kids executed in the second half.”
The Mustangs scored on their first drive, marching 89 yards on eight plays, culminating when Drake Flores took a hand off and ran up the middle, breaking two tackles and racing 16 yards into the end zone. Keegan Freid scored the two-point conversion and Sunrise Mountain led 8-0 with 5:53 left in the first quarter.
“We started strong, getting down field on our first drive, then (Cactus Shadows) made some adjustments,” Decker said.
Early in the second quarter, Flores was stripped and Cactus Shadows’ Matt Kuhlmann recovered the ball at the Mustangs 22-yard line.
On the next play, Cactus Shadows showed some trickery when Grant Thom took a pitch and rolled to his left, then lofted a pass back to quarterback Andrew Young, who raced 22 yards into the end zone to cut the deficit to 8-7.
After the kickoff, Flores took another hand off, but fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Cactus Shadows’ Mason Russo at the Mustangs’ 15-yard line.
“After the second one, coach told me to keep my head up,” Flores said. “I wanted to redeem myself for my brothers because we came all this way with our hard work all year and we did not want to lose this game.”
Three plays after the fumble, Sunrise Mountain outside linebacker Dylan Carioscia stepped in front of a Young pass in the end zone to end their drive with just over seven minutes left in the first half. Carioscia had a second interception in the third quarter to lead the defense.
“I was supposed to get the weak side guy, but the other safety picked him up,” said Carioscia. “When the pass went up, I saw the ball come out and I just jumped up to get the ball.”
The interception seemed to turn the team around, as the Mustangs would then score on six of their final nine drives to pull away.
The Mustangs’ offense scored two touchdowns in the final seven minutes of the first half; first, a five-yard run by Jay Anderson and a three-yard run by quarterback Keegan Freid with 15 seconds left to lead 21-7 at halftime.
Decker said the coaches told the team at halftime they had to settle down and play their game.
“Coach told us we had to play four quarters of Mustangs football,” Freid said. “In the second half, I just wanted to play for the team because we made some mistakes early and knew we could play better.”
Sunrise Mountain opened the second half when, on the first play, Flores took a hand off and raced around the outside 75 yards down to the Cactus Shadows 10-yard line. Two plays later, Flores rumbled up the middle for a seven-yard touchdown 53 seconds into the second half. Flores scored his second touchdown five minutes later when he scored on a four-yard run.
“The line has so much chemistry and they made it easy for me by opening some huge holes,” Flores said. “I made some mistakes early, but I was focused on turning it around to help my brothers.”
Cactus Shadows finally got their second score with just over eight minutes left in the game when Young rolled to his right and tossed a one-yard touchdown pass to Thom.
Freid would answer right back four plays later when he connected on a 14-yard touchdown pass to Angel Ruiz before Anderson finished the scoring two minutes later on a 10-yard run.
Flores finished with 190 yards rushing and two touchdowns after the two early fumbles to lead the Mustangs.
“After the second fumble, I just got (Flores) on the sideline and told him he owed us and he was not holding up his end of the deal,” Decker said. “He is a great player and I told him he had to get it back for us and boy did he do that in the second half.”
Freid finished with 204 passing yards and one touchdown and added another rushing touchdown. Ruiz caught seven passes for 108 yards and a touchdown.
“This is the best feeling because we came together as a team after some ups and downs tonight,” Ruiz said. “Coach told us to be ourselves and play Mustangs football and we did that on both sides of the ball. To battle back the way we did, this is the first step in our goals and now we can go out and continue to get better.”
Sunrise Mountain (11-1) will battle No. 4 Tucson Salpointe Catholic (11-1) in their first semifinals game in school history 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Glendale Ironwood High School.