Playing against a Scottsdale Saguaro team aiming to become the first school in Arizona history to win five straight state championships, Peoria head coach Will Babb knew his team could not make mistakes if they were to score the upset.

Peoria struggled early and had six turnovers as Saguaro dominated in cruising to a 56-7 quarterfinal victory Nov. 10 at Scottsdale Saguaro High School.

On the opening drive, Peoria quarterback Nate Dobson fumbled the ball at the Peoria 25-yard line and Saguaro recovered the ball. Four plays later, Saguaro quarterback Max Massingale raced around the right for a one-yard touchdown for an early turning point in the game

“We talked all week about playing through tough times, so I thought we continued to play well on defense, so that (turnover) was too early to be the turning point,” Babb said.  

Peoria’s defense forced the Sabercats to punt and only trailed by seven at the end of the first quarter, before the flood gates opened.

Peoria started the second quarter at their own 19-yard line when Dobson tossed a pass that was intercepted by Saguaro’s Damian Sellers. Three plays later, Josiah Bradley took a hand off and rumbled up the middle for a three-yard touchdown to put the Sabercats up 14-0.

On the Panthers’ next possession, Dobson threw his second interception, but the Panthers’ defense stopped the Sabercats on a fourth down.

“We needed to have them focus on more than just stopping our run, so we wanted to be balanced,” Babb said. “If you’re one dimensional, they’ll tee off on you, which they did.”

On their next possession, on a second-and-eight, Dobson dropped back and fired a pass over the middle that Saguaro’s Cameron Smith stepped in front of and raced 57 yards for a touchdown.

After Peoria was stopped on a fourth-and-16 from Saguaro’s 43, Massingale tossed a 57-yard touchdown pass to Logan Pettijohn to put the Panthers down 28-0 at halftime.

“It could have been 14-0 at half if we didn’t hurt our defense with turnovers and field position,” Babb said. “To some extent (we came in here with nothing to lose), you’re going to have to get some breaks and hope they make some mistakes.  Really you have to let her rip.”

The Sabercats put the game away on their first possession of the second half when they marched 59 yards on seven plays, ending when Massingale tossed a six-yard touchdown pass to Zach Wilson and the Sabercats were up 35-0.

Peoria finally got on the scoreboard after falling behind 42-0, when Juwaun Price took a hand off and raced up the middle 83 yards for a touchdown.

“I thought our kids were resilient,” Babb said. “We were on life support since week nine from self-inflicted wounds and we were able to gather up and make the playoffs and win a first-round game.”

Peoria’s defense, which came into the game allowing an average of 20.5 points a game, allowed Saguaro to drop 56 points and the offense allowed 28 points off turnovers. Price led the Panthers with 107 yards rushing and the lone touchdown, while Dobson finished with 131 passing yards, but four interceptions in the loss.

Peoria loses 28 players to graduation, including starting quarterback Dobson, running back Sonatane Zabala, strong safety Aaron Owsiany and wide receivers Elijah Neal and Trevor Babb, but Price returns for a senior season.

“We have a lot of work to do for next season.  We have to get stronger physically as a program and our returners have to find a personal commitment themselves and their teammates. In today’s world, we want results minus the work,” Babb said. “We better figure out how to work this off season. We have some underclassmen that were very good players for us this year. The difference will be the guys coming back that didn’t play or no one knows about. They are going to be the keys to next year’s team. It’s high school football; you have to play who you’ve got, you can’t recruit like college.”