Defense, special teams dominant in breakthrough Willow Canyon win

Posted 10/23/21

A cursory glance at the last three Willow Canyon football wins before Oct. 22, by scores of 96-0, 62-19 and 70-0, casts the team as an offensive juggernaut.

Watching the Wildcats earn their fifth and biggest win of the season the night of Oct. 22

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Defense, special teams dominant in breakthrough Willow Canyon win


A cursory glance at the last three Willow Canyon football wins before Oct. 22, by scores of 96-0, 62-19 and 70-0, casts the team as an offensive juggernaut.

Watching the Wildcats earn their fifth and biggest win of the season the night of Oct. 22, however, it is clear how much the defense and special teams set the table for this squad. Willow Canyon's victory came with less than 200 yards of total offense.

The defense forced three turnovers, the return game set up short fields and junior kicker Bryson Wilke hit all four field goal attempts in the 27-6 Willow Canyon (5-3 overall, 3-1 5A Northwest Region) win at Avondale Agua Fria (5-3, 2-2). 

"We knew in the offseason with bringing in a whole new offensive philosophy and our defense and our special teams coming back along with coach Wilke and Rekedal, we knew that had to be the emphasis," Willow Canyon coach Justin Stangler said. "Since I've been here we emphasize special teams . Tonight it made a huge difference in what we did. I don't think most teams prepare for it."

After picking up one first down then punting on the opening drive of the game, the Wildcats offense received stellar field position for the rest of the first half.

Senior receiver Donovan Williams returned the Owls first punt more than 40 yards to the Agua Fria 11. Then senior Jareb Meraz recovered a fumble at the Owls 20.

Early in the second quarter, senior receiver/cornerback Daunte Williams picked off Agua Fria senior quarterback Angel Soto and returned it to the Owls' 33.

None of these short fields resulted in touchdowns. But Wilke made sure the first two were not empty.

He hit field goals of 24 and 42 yards in the first quarter. When the Wildcats' fifth drive started at midfield and nearly ended with a third-down fumble, Wilke added a 34-yard field goal to give the visitors a 9-0 advantage that lasted until halftime.

"Special teams are really important and we try to make sure all three sides of the ball are succeding. We work really hard in the week on specials because we know they'll win us games," Wilke said. "Going 4-4 on field goals and having a blocked punt fealt really good. I had been 0-3 so far."

The Williams brothers bookended the first touchdown of the night. Willow Canyon knocked Soto out of the game in the second quarter and sophomore Jonathan Hodges played the rest of the half in relief.

Senior running back Brian Fullwood moved to quarterback for the Owls. Daunte Williams promptly picked off his first pass and returned it more than 40 yards to the Agua Fria 10.

"The Williams brothers are great players. They're electric and do everything on special teams. Daunte made a big sacrifice early in the year and came over to defense because we needed help at the safety spot. They're special dudes." Stangler said.

Another Wilke field goal appeared in the offing as Willow Canyon faced third down and goal at the 8.

This time, though, sophomore quarterback Calvin Mathews rolled out and connected with Donovan Williams in the front corner of the end zone.

"It felt really good. My brother executed on defense and brought the ball down where it was simple to score," Donovan Williams said. 

Willow Canyon led 16-0 and received more great field position later in the third. Starting at the Owls' 42, the offense produced runs of 18 yards by Mathews and 14 by sophomore Marquez Smith but bogged down again and Wilke converted a 29-yard field goal.

Tonight the ball was exploding of Bryson's foot and it was a great night for it to happen." Stangler said.

Soto returned late in the third quarter and gave the home team some life. His passes of nine and 11 yards and senior Jovonte Trimble's 21-yard run paved the way for first and goal.

Fullwood ran a curl route out of the backfield and Soto tossed him a four-yard touchdown early in the fourth quarter. Again, the Willow Canyon special teams responded with a blocked extra point.

The Wildcats offense also stepped up to short circuit any Agua Fria momentum. Their second touchdown drive began at the Owls' 20.

Senior slotback Xereque Parham nearly made it a two-play drive, breaking into the clear for a 71-yard touchdown. But two illegal blocks in the back downfield moved the Wildcats back to their 45.

The offensive line kept pushing and Parham eventually scored, on a two-yard plunge. Then Donovan Williams tossed an improvised two-point pass to Wilke to complete the scoring.

Wilke also added a blocked punt.

"I'd say it's our biggest win of the year because last year they took it away from us on the last drive," Wilke said. "To come out of here with a victory on their senior night is a big win for us."

While the Wildcats need help to win the region after starting Northwest play with a 27-14 loss at Canyon View (4-3, 3-0), beating Agua Fria is still a benchmark.

The Owls won the last two games in this fairly new rivalry, including a 27-21 victory in the last minute that determined the 2020 region crown.

"I've been on the varsity three years and every time we played Agua Fria we lost in the fourth quarter. This year its really good to beat Agua Fria and still be in the playoff hunt," Williams said

Stangler was a longtime Wildcats assistant before being named head coach in 2018. He was on the staff in 2011, the last time the program finished with five or more wins.

Willow Canyon went 4-3 in the abbreviated 2020 season. But a full-season winning record and even a 5A playoff berth are within reach now.

The Wildcats entered this game #25 in the 5A rankings but should move much closer to the top 16 after knocking off #13 Agua Fria.

"The fact that they're 5-3 ... we haven't been 5-3 in a decade. People told me when I took the job that you can't win at Willow Canyon. I took that as a challenge and I know the kids here," Stangler said. "They believe in the process. We've had a lot of adversity and they've stuck to it, especially these seniors. They came in when I came in and they stuck with it. It's been great."


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