'Lights Out' Cactus advances 21-14 over tough Willow Canyon

4-seed Cobras to host defending 5A champ Horizon next week


GLENDALE — When the chips were down on Friday night, the Cactus Cobras played “lights out” in more ways than one.

Cactus survived 4 turnovers and made just enough big plays to escape the Willow Canyon Wildcats 21-14 in a 5A playoff opening round game delayed by 90 minutes and moved 7 miles from its original location due to a power failure.

“At the end of the day, we will take it,” Cactus Head Coach Brian Belles said. “We definitely played better in the second half than the first. Our kids buckled down and made the plays when they had to.”

In a high school football season marked by weather oddities, postponements and rescheduling, this West Valley matchup fit the mold just about perfectly.

Fans arriving at Cactus High School expecting the normal pregame festivities instead were met with a pitch-black stadium as two blown fuses indicated a short circuit that could not be fixed in a timely fashion. A long line of fans that had formed quickly broke up as most believed the game would be moved a couple miles down the road to Ironwood High School.

But upon arrival at IHS, it was announced the game would instead be contested at nearby Apollo High School. Vehicles continued to pour into the dark parking lot at Ironwood for several minutes but with no lit stadium, those cars, trucks and SUVs then made a beeline for 47th Avenue:

“There were a lot of complexities to this night,” explained Belles. “We had to scramble but they had to deal with it, too. Obviously, we have to play better and I think we will next week.”

Once the contest between two region champions finally got going on Apollo’s new state-of-the-art turf, the fireworks began quickly. The Cobras’ defense forced a Wildcats’ punt on the first WCHS possession.

Cactus’ Polo Banuelos received the ball, cut across the field but lost his footing and sat down on the turf. Not hearing a whistle, Banuelos alertly got up and ran 80 yards down the right sideline for a Cobras touchdown.

The Willow Canyon sideline vehemently protested but game officials later explained they ruled Banuelos did not “give himself up” on the play, meaning he could continue to run.

Wildcats Head Coach Justin Stangler disagreed.

“Absolutely he was down,” Stangler said after the game. “We know we are not going to get every call. That’s just the way football goes sometimes.”

When Cobras do-it-all playmaker Will Galvan ran in a 2-point play, Cactus led 8-0 at the 7:41 mark of the first quarter.

Willow Canyon, seeded 13th in the 5A bracket, then confidently drove the football into Cactus territory but a long field goal attempt fell short and the game remained 8-0.

It didn’t take long for the Cats’ defense to come up with a big play against the fourth-seeded Cobras.

Cactus QB Rudy Gonzales attempted a pass to the left side but it was intercepted by Willow Canyon’s Michael Simmons.

This time, the Wildcats would cash in. Moving the ball effectively using workhorse running back Brady Ferris, Willow Canyon found paydirt at the 11:50 mark of the second quarter as Ferris broke right for a 1-yard rushing score:

WCHS went for 2 to try to tie but fell just short and Cactus led 8-6 early in the second quarter.

Cactus (8-3) responded in short order.

Two minutes later, Gonzales found a wide-open Nikko Boncore-Montoya across the middle of the field for a 41-yard scoring strike. The extra point was blocked but the Cobras still held a 14-6 advantage 9:38 before halftime.

Another Cactus giveaway gave Willow Canyon a short field. Dominic Jewell picked off a pass in the middle of the field and the Wildcats were set up inside the Cactus 30.

A few plays later, Ferris darted up the middle for his second TD of the night — this time from 10 yards out:

“We saw Ferris on film and we knew he is a tremendous running back,” Belles said. “But as the game went on, we were able to get some stops defensively.”

WCHS pulled out the bag of tricks on the 2-point play. Drew Church took a handoff then lofted a ball into the corner of the end zone where Landon Borders outfought the defender for the ball. The successful pass tied the game at 14-14 with 2:45 left in the 2nd.

Late in the first half, Wildcats starting quarterback Calvin Mathews was placed in concussion protocol and backup Roman Thuyns took the reins for the rest of the game.

“Roman has played for us before. He won a game earlier this year,” Stangler said. “We had complete confidence in him.”

Cactus suffered a lost fumble with under a minute to go before halftime but the game remained 14-14 at the break.

Both defenses took hold in the second half.

Banuelos recovered a Wildcats fumble to start the stanza.

Then Galvan moved front and center for the game-winning sequence for the Cobras late in the third quarter.

First, Galvan caught a 43-yard reception to move the football inside the WCHS 5 yard line. Two plays later, he scored from a yard out to give the Cobras the lead:

Aryn Prinz added the PAT and Cactus led 21-14 with 3:07 left in the 3rd.

Ferris continued to work as the final quarter began but the Cobras’ defense was up to the task, shutting out Willow Canyon (7-3) in the second half to “survive and advance” with a 7-point win.

Although the Wildcats were visibly upset following the narrow defeat, they left Apollo with their heads held high.

“We have a tough bunch of kids. This is the best team that has ever played at Willow Canyon — the seniors contributed so much,” Stangler said. “And Cactus is a good program. We wanted to show everyone we could play with them — and we did. I think the state now knows who Willow Canyon is.”

Cactus advances to host #5 Horizon next Friday. The Huskies are the defending 5A state champions.

“Horizon is a very well-coached team — they have proven that,” said Belles. “It will definitely be a stiff test.”

Cactus, Willow Canyon, football, 5A, playoffs