A season that began with dreams of a trip to the school’s first state championship game ran into a sophomore Mack truck that ran through the Mustangs’ defense in the semifinals to end the team’s dream season.
Tucson Salpointe Catholic running back Bijan Robinson rushed for 303 yards and two touchdowns for a come-from-behind 49-27 victory Nov. 17 at Ironwood High School.
Salpointe Catholic (12-1) will play Scottsdale Saguaro (11-2) Dec. 2 at University of Arizona Stadium for the 4A title.
“(Robinson) is a great running back and he made some big plays tonight that made a difference,” said Sunrise Mountain head coach Steve Decker. “They are a great football team and we just can’t turn the ball over that much and expect to win.”
Sunrise Mountain (11-2) jumped on the Lancers quickly in getting out to a 14-point lead in the first five minutes.
The Mustangs took the opening kick off and marched 80 yards in eight plays, culminating when quarterback Keegan Freid lofted a 14-yard pass to the corner of the end zone, where senior Angel Ruiz make a leaping catch for the opening score.
“(Freid) tossed a perfect pass and I just leapt in the air to grab it,” said Ruiz. “That was a great pass and nothing was going to keep me from getting that pass.”
After the Mustangs’ defense forced a punt on the Lancers’ first drive, Sunrise Mountain struck on their next play when Freid scrambled to his right and lofted a 28-yard touchdown to Jay Anderson and the Mustangs were up 14-0.
“We tried to keep the pedal down,” said Decker. “They made some good adjustments defensively.”
After Sunrise Mountain took the quick lead, Salpointe Catholic head coach Dennis Bene pulled his team to the sideline and adjusted his offense.
“Our linemen believe in our backs and they just keep on the grind,” said Bene. “After watching what they did, we felt like we just had to keep running inside. It wasn’t adjustments; we just didn’t want to panic, so we stayed with the game plan.”
After that, the Lancers outscored the Mustangs 49-13 in the final 40 minutes of the game.
The Lancers took over with just over three minutes left in the first quarter and Robinson took over. He took a delayed hand-off and raced up the middle for a 61-yard touchdown to cut the Mustangs’ lead to 14-7 at the end of the first quarter.
In the second, on the first possession for Salpointe Catholic, the Lancers marched 53 yards on seven plays and Robinson rumbled up the middle for a two-yard touchdown to tie the game at 14.
“We just didn’t let down, we kept playing,” said Robinson. “We ran behind our offensive line and waited for our defense to make plays.”
Salpointe Catholic took the lead with just over seven minutes left in the first half when quarterback Rodrigo Nieto faked a hand-off to Robinson, then rushed 11 yards for a touchdown.
“We knew they were going to be focusing on (Robinson) and I just was lucky to get a good hole from my line,” said Nieto. “That really pumped up our team and we wanted to keep going.”
Sunrise Mountain answered when Freid connected with Ruiz on their second score on a 10-yard touchdown pass, but they missed the two-point conversion and trailed 21-20.
Salpointe Catholic would add another touchdown with two minutes left in the first half when Nieto tossed a 12-yard touchdown pass to Mario Padilla to lead 28-20 at halftime.
In the second half, the Mustangs’ defense made plays early when Brody Webb sacked Nieto and after Robinson fumbled the ball at the Mustangs’ 36 yard-line, the ball was recovered by Gavin Chaddock at the 38-yard line.
On the next play, Freid fumbled the hand-off and the ball was recovered by Salpointe Catholic’s Chris Aguirre. Six plays later, the Lancers sealed the win when Nieto tossed a 31-yard touchdown pass to Christian Ralls.
Trailing 42-20 with 11 minutes left in the game, the Mustangs tried to get back into the game when they marched 80 yards on nine plays, ending when Freid connected with Ruiz on their third touchdown on an 18-yard strike with 7:27 left in the game.
“We felt we could battle back and we tried our hardest,” said Ruiz. “When we got that score, we needed our defense to come up big and they did.”
On the Lancers’ next possession, the Mustangs’ defense held tough, forcing a punt that was blocked by the Mustangs’ Hunter Olson and they recovered the ball at the Lancer’s 15-yard line.
Two plays later, the Mustangs looked to get within striking distance when Freid scrambled and raced up the middle. As he stretched the ball toward the goal line, the ball was knocked loose and Salpointe Catholic recovered the ball in the end zone to seal the win.
Freid finished with 156 yards passing and four touchdown passes and Ruiz finished with nine receptions for 119 yards and three touchdowns in the loss. Brody Webb had two sacks and Bo Moore added another, as the defense allowed the most points on the season.
“I’m not the happiest man in the world, but overall, we had a great season,” Ruiz said. “We didn’t get our main goal, but we had a pretty successful year and this was a special team. We just came up short on our goal and that is what hurts the most tonight.”
Robinson and the Lancers’ rushing game, which totaled 496 yards as a team, took advantage of a Mustangs defense that was on the field for long stretches during the game. Sunrise Mountain’s defense had allowed an average of 247 yards a game coming into the semifinal matchup.
“Our defense has been our key all year and (Salpointe Catholic) just did a great job tonight,” said Decker. “This has been an amazing season and to get this far (semifinals) for the first time in school history, it was just a great year. It always hurts when you lose, but they are a great team.”