Cactus seniors lead the way to 26-18 quarterfinal win over Horizon

Cobras face top-seeded NDP next Friday in 5A semifinals


GLENDALE — All of the Cactus Cobras’ playmakers came up big on Friday night. In the end, the Cobras needed every single one of them.

Led by seniors Will Galvan, Polo Banuelos, Rudy Gonzales, Damian Jiles and Dom Solano, Cactus sprinted out to a 23-point lead then held on as the Horizon Huskies staged a furious late comeback in the Cobras’ 26-18 5A quarterfinal playoff victory at M.L. Huber Stadium.

“We knew we were better than we showed last week,” Cactus Head Coach Brian Belles said after the Cobras’ 7th straight win. “The kids worked hard all week on the game plan and we showed tonight what we can be. We’ve got kids that have played together for a long time and they did a great job for us tonight.”

Cactus made the move from 4A to 5A this season and stumbled out of the gate. But the fourth-seeded Cobras have now hit their stride, turning heads by winning a region title on Desert Edge’s home field and now winning a pair of playoff games to be among the final four teams standing in the 5A ranks.

“When we are dialed in and focused on both offense and defense, we can be pretty good,” Belles added.

Looking for a better start than they had last week in an opening-round win over Willow Canyon, the Cobras experienced just the opposite as they fumbled the ball away on their first play from scrimmage.

That led to a 24-yard field goal by Horizon’s Kanyon Floyd and the Huskies had a quick 3-0 lead at the 9:19 mark of the opening quarter:

Later, the Cobras botched a punt snap and the #5 seed Huskies blocked the attempted kick by Banuelos. That’s when the Cactus defense made the first of several big stops on the night — Solano was seemingly pressuring Horizon QB Kaden Zordani on every play and the Huskies failed on a fourth-down attempt when Zordani overthrew a deep ball intended for Cole Linyard.

“I was aggressive off the ball because I knew they couldn’t contest me with hands,” Solano said of his dominant effort on the defensive line that led to multiple sacks. “Then I had the drive to finish and I trust my DBs on the back end. We had a good idea what they would run based on their formation.”

Still trailing by 3, Cactus relinquished the football as a 4th-and-10 attempt failed early in the second:

By this time, the Cobras defense was digging in and they forced another Horizon punt from Floyd.

Cactus would then cash in and take the lead. An 8-play, 80-yard drive was capped by this 4-yard TD run by Jiles:

The Cobras went for 2 but Galvan was tripped up short of the goal line and Cactus had a 6-3 lead with 3:15 to go before halftime.

After another stop on defense, Cactus appeared content to run out the clock before the break but Galvan was having none of it — the do-it-all senior who was lining up all over the field followed the blocks of his offensive line into a 40-yard run to midfield.

“The coaches trust me with the ball and it means a lot to me,” Galvan said.

On the next play, Cactus QB Gonzales found Nikko Boncore on a 34-yard pass play into the red zone.

A couple snaps later, Gonzales and Galvan combined for the play of the night:

The incredible, one-handed 7-yard touchdown grab by Galvan on a perfectly placed throw from Gonzales with no time left on the clock left the home crowd buzzing and left Horizon looking for answers after surrendering a 97-yard drive to end the first half.

The highlight-reel catch did not surprise Belles.

“That was huge but it was just Will doing what Will does,” the head coach said. “He means everything to us. A special player.”

Galvan talked about the touchdown following the game.

“He just threw it up and my coaches always tell me if the ball is in the air, you grab it,” Galvan explained. “It didn’t get tipped — I just snagged it and pulled it in.”

Leading 13-3, Cactus continued the momentum out of the break by driving into the red zone but ultimately coming away empty as a fake field goal was unsuccessful. Undeterred, the Cobras’ stifling defense got the ball right back and Banuelos found paydirt from 17 yards out:

Aryn Prinz added the PAT to put Cactus up 20-3 with 3:40 left in the third quarter.

The Cobras’ D looked to put the game away on the next series as Tovia Vito picked off Zordani over the middle. Vito rumbled down into Horizon territory, setting up another Gonzales-to-Galvan TD strike — this one for 16 yards:

Cactus led 26-3 heading to the fourth quarter and looked to be on cruise control. But Horizon (7-5) had other ideas.

First, the Huskies’ Bodie Zamorano darted in for a 2-yard touchdown run. Zordani found Linyard on a 2-point pass and Horizon had cut the Cactus lead to 26-11 with 7:14 left in the game.

Zordani was later hurt and left the game in favor of backup QB Zack Jones.

The Cobras seemed to ice the game with an interception off Jones with about 2 minutes left.

However, after a long discussion, game officials called defensive pass interference on Cactus to keep the drive alive.

Horizon took full advantage as Jones lofted a nice ball into the left corner that Linyard caught in double coverage for a 15-yard touchdown. Floyd added the PAT and suddenly the Huskies trailed just 26-18 with 1:16 left to play.

Needing an onside kick recovery, Horizon got a nice bounce on a bounding kick by Floyd but the Cobras’ Matai Carter calmly collected the ball near the left sideline. Carter dashed down the sideline inside the Horizon 30 where the Cobras were able to run out the clock and seal the win.

With the victory, Cactus (9-3) knocked out the defending 5A champions and now hit the road to face top-seeded Notre Dame Prep in the 5A semifinals at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2. In the other 5A semifinal, #3 Higley will be at #2 Desert Mountain.

Cactus’ last loss come on the final day of September and the Cobras want to keep their current momentum going into the final month of 2022.

“We believe in ourselves. Some people wrote us off early in the season but here we are,” Belles said. “Notre Dame Prep will obviously be a huge challenge for us. We are going to enjoy this tonight then get back to work.”

Cactus, Horizon, 5A playoffs, prep football, HS football, Arizona