PEORIA — Make no mistake about it, the Hamilton Huskies are back.
Hamilton took a major step toward validating its return to elite status on Friday, using a punishing running game and stifling defense to stun Centennial 28-19 in an Open Division quarterfinal playoff game at Coyotes Field.
“Our coaching staff did an incredible job of preparing for this game and the kids were ready,” said Hamilton Head Coach Michael Zdebski. “We’ve got a pretty good team. We are exactly where we want to be and where we expected to be.”
The Huskies scored four touchdowns in the game — all on the ground — while wearing down Centennial’s front seven in the process. Gabriel Armenta did the bulk of the damage through three quarters before bruising closer Sebastian Dorman finished things off in the fourth.
“We’re lucky to have two talented guys back there,” Zdebski said. “And our offensive line came to play.”
The seventh-seeded Huskies (9-2) move on to the Open Division semifinals to face #3 Saguaro at 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 23 at Coronado High School. Centennial, seeded #2 in the 8-team open bracket, saw its season end with a 9-2 record.
“We played hard but all credit to Hamilton,” Centennial Head Coach Richard Taylor said. “Obviously, they were the better team tonight.”
Both teams were in the “feeling out” process early in the game before the Huskies finally got on the board late in the first quarter. Armenta capped a 12-play drive with a 2-yard touchdown run and Brody Kofahl added the PAT to give the visitors a 7-0 lead.
It was the first time Centennial trailed in a game since Week 2 against Mater Dei.
On the Coyotes’ next offensive possession, senior quarterback Jonathan Morris found Andre Dimbiti over the middle for what appeared to be a 55-yard score. But Dimbiti stumbled over his own feet and fell at the Huskies’ 22. Centennial had to settle for a 32-yard field goal by Juaquin Rodriguez and the Coyotes trailed 7-3 with 8 minutes until halftime.
Centennial’s defense forced a three-and-out and Morris went to work, connecting with Dax Lindholm on a 34-yard pass on a crossing pattern. On first down, Morris lofted a floating ball that receiver Dyelan Miller snagged in the back left corner of the end zone and Centennial had its first lead of the night. Rodriguez connected to give the Coyotes a 10-7 lead as an overflow home crowd roared its approval.
The Huskies immediately responded to retake the lead. A long pass to Colorado commit Brenden Rice led to Hamilton QB Nick Arvay calling his own number from 5 yards out. The TD scramble and Kofahl PAT put Hamilton up 14-10 with 1:36 before the break.
The Huskies threatened again before Centennial’s Rashon Adams picked off Arvay at the goal line just before the halftime buzzer.
Centennial forced another Huskies punt to start the third quarter but the Hamilton defensive line started to make its presence felt.
Morris was under pressure and was forced into his first interception of the night, a heave down the right sideline easily picked off by Hamilton’s Brady Shough.
“I thought if we could come out and score quickly in the second half, they might crack under the pressure but that didn’t materialize,” said Taylor, whose Coyotes destroyed region opponents by a combined score of 253-0 only to be ousted in the playoff opener. “Hamilton kept their cool — they’re a good team.”
The teams traded punts before Hamilton’s talented O-line got to work. Arvay and Armenta ran behind the talented line to get the ball into the red zone. Armenta then scored his second rushing TD of the night, this time from 4 yards out. Kofahl was good again, Hamilton led 21-10 and the Centennial sideline and fans in the stands were all but silent.
Centennial, two-time defending 5A state champions, got right back into the game on its next drive. Jaydin Young finally got untracked in the running game and exploded for a 68-yard run on a crucial third down. Battering ram running back Tage Rigby took it from there, diving over the pile from 2 yards away with 11 seconds left in the third. Rodriguez made the extra point to bring Centennial within 21-17.
Hamilton’s physical nature paid big dividends as the final stanza got going. Dorman relieved Armenta in the backfield and punished a tired Coyotes defense that had sustained some injuries during the game, most notably to linebacker Bryson Thomas.
Dorman carried four times then hit paydirt on his fifth touch of the series, rumbling 44 yards for a decisive touchdown.
“Our line did well,” Dorman said after the game. “The progress they have made has been incredible. Everyone has put in the work to make this happen and we’re going to continue to work hard.”
Down by 28-17 with time becoming a factor, Centennial executed a perfect fake punt on fourth down. Eric Haney tossed the ball over the middle to Miller who darted nearly 40 yards near the Huskies red zone. But two plays later, Morris threw another INT — this time, Zachary Lewis did the honors.
Hamilton ran clock on its next series before Morris was intercepted for a third time in the second half.
“Jonathan (Morris) didn’t really have a clean pocket at all tonight,” Taylor explained. “It was a difficult situation for him to be under that much pressure.”
The Huskies took a self-safety with less than 30 seconds on the clock to make the score 28-19 but the celebration had already begun on the Hamilton sideline.
Armenta tallied two rushing TDs while Arvay and Dorman added one each. Centennial got 1 passing TD but three costly interceptions from Morris in the game.
Zdebski said after the game a narrow defeat to top-seeded Chandler in the regular season finale showed the Huskies they belonged in the open bracket. With a semifinal win next weekend, the Huskies could see their arch rivals again with a state title on the line.
“We were a few feet from winning that game,” Zdebski said of the 42-38 loss to Chandler. “Tonight is a big step but we still have a long way to go.”