The Sunrise Mountain Mustangs, fueled by the largest senior class in team history, utilized their dominant rushing offense Dec. 11 to win the school’s first football title in a 42-20 victory over the Ironwood Eagles in the 2020 AIA Football 5A State Championship Final.
Sunrise Mountain boasted around 30 seniors on this team, many of whom played in the Mustangs’ youth football feeder programs. They had noticeable talent from the onset of their playing days. Many started or contributed to the varsity group as sophomores. They made the playoffs repeatedly, but the victory in the championship game was the first time they got over the hump.
“In youth football we were runner-up twice, and we always talked about getting a championship when we got to high school but never did it, so it feels so good to get this,” said senior offensive lineman Robbie Maple.
The Mustangs used the same strategy—run the ball over and over—to out-muscle the Eagles. They threw one pass all game, sailing incomplete over the receiver’s head in the second quarter.
The Mustangs finished with 442 rushing yards and six touchdowns, scored by four different ball carriers. They lined up in the same formation nearly every play, with quarterback Travis Ward flanked by two running backs. He continually handed off to the backs, who ran behind a large offensive line for big gains.
“Ever since we were able to figure out what we could do, we’ve been able to maul people and run it up the gut. And it’s awesome knowing that I’m blocking for guys that I’ve been with for so long because we know that anything happens, they’ll be able to make a play,” Maple said.
“Go with what’s working,” coach Steve Decker added.
But, despite the score and dominant statistics suggesting otherwise, it did not appear Sunrise Mountain would be able to run away with the victory early. The Mustangs fell 20-11 to the Eagles in the regular season, and it looked like history might repeat itself.
“It was kind of in the back of our head that maybe we would get to play them again in the championship, and then we got to, so it was awesome,” senior Brandon Bogard said.
Ironwood took a lead on the game’s opening drive behind stellar play from senior quarterback Will Haskell. He scrambled out of broken pass plays for several first downs, and a long touchdown run put the Eagles up 7-0.
The Mustangs responded with their run game, as always. They moved the ball downfield, but the Eagles halted two drives in the first half by forcing fumbles. Ironwood utilized the advantageous field position earned by the second fumble recovered to score again, going up 14-7 late in the first half.
Sunrise Mountain kept running the ball, though. With under a minute remaining in the second quarter, Bogard scored a touchdown.
The Mustangs fumbled on the two-point attempt, but senior running back Tommy Arnold—who had fumbled the first two times—redeemed himself by picking up the loose ball, shedding a tackler and scoring to give Sunrise Mountain a 15-14 lead at halftime. He would finish the game with 205 yards and two scores.
“I knew when we pulled ahead that they were going to break down, and we took advantage of that,” Bogard said.
The runs kept coming in the third quarter. The fumbling stopped.
While the Mustangs kept scoring, the Eagles could not. Sunrise Mountain’s defense began to dominate at the line of scrimmage. Sunrise Mountain rushed Haskell and contained him from the outside to keep him in the pocket, knowing that his running ability in the open field might kill them otherwise.
The Eagles punched in one short rushing touchdown late in the fourth quarter, giving a sliver of hope.
But Julian Esber took that hope away quickly, responding with a 62-yard rushing touchdown, his second of the night, to put the game away.
“We weren’t staying satisfied. We needed to secure it and broke it open right there,” Esber said.
The Mustangs knelt out the clock and won their first title, leaving the Eagles still searching for their own first championship.
Sunrise Mountain finishes their best season with a 10-2 victory. The Mustangs will have to replace the talent of their largest senior class if they want to reach this point again. Coach Decker will have to rely on an infusion of youth, taking after the 2021 graduates.
But at least for one night, hoisting the 5A trophy, the Mustangs could celebrate.
“To win it on our last game, this is just special,” Bogard said.