GLENDALE — When it comes to the Arizona Open Division football playoffs, size matters.
The Cactus Cobras learned that difficult lesson Friday night as the bigger, stronger Saguaro Sabercats pushed Cactus around — literally and figuratively — on their way to an easy 42-21 victory in an Open Division quarterfinal playoff game at CHS.
“They punched us in the mouth early but we were able to make some adjustments at halftime and fight back by getting some turnovers on defense,” Cactus Head Coach Joseph Ortiz said after the game. “They just overpowered us. We are a 4A school without a lot of size and it showed.”
A Cobras squad that had only allowed 62 total points in 10 regular season games was gashed for 42 in one night by a potent Sabercats offense led by quarterback Devon Dampier, a transfer from Pinnacle making his first start all season.
“The team believed in me,” said Dampier, who rushed for three scores and threw for another. “It’s been a different kind of atmosphere since I got here. My teammates always have my back so I thank them for that.”
Saguaro Head Coach Jason Mohns didn’t pause for a second when inserting Dampier into the starting lineup.
“We have a lot of ways to attack you and Dampier made some tremendous throws on third down tonight to keep the chains moving,” Mohns said.
“Outside of those turnovers, we dominated the game. And I’m proud of the way we responded after those giveaways.”
Besides fighting Saguaro all night, Joseph Ortiz and his Cobras were also fighting with the game officials. Three critical and controversial calls — an early roughing the passer penalty, a second-half interception that clearly hit the ground and a potential strip/fumble late in the game — all went against Cactus and left the head coach steaming on the sidelines.
“Three years in a row the refs have hurt us badly,” Joseph Ortiz said. “And it’s just not right.”
The Open Division pits the top teams from Class 4A-6A at the end of the regular season in an eight-team knockout tournament. Unfortunately for fourth-seeded Cactus from 4A, they drew the fifth-seeded Sabercats from 5A in the quarters. It didn’t take long for the visitors to start flexing their collective muscles.
The teams traded punts before Saguaro (10-1) got their offense rolling midway through the first quarter.
On the Sabercats’ second possession, it took just four plays before running back Jaedon Matthews exploded through the middle for a 71-yard touchdown run. Michael Ortiz added the PAT and Saguaro led 7-0 with 4:57 left in the first.
Cactus (10-1) looked to equalize but instead suffered a turnover as quarterback Will Galvan was hit and lost the football on third down. Saguaro’s Micah Lutu pounced on the loose ball and the Cats were in the business at the Cactus 36.
Dampier rushed twice and also threw a screen pass to Javen Jacobs. As the quarter turned, Dampier showed his athletic ability on a nifty 11-yard TD run:
Saguaro QB Devon Dampier leaps for an 11-yard score. Ortiz PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 27, 2021
#5 @saguarofootball 14
#4 @CactusHSCobras 0
11:44 - 2nd Quarter
Open Division Quarterfinal #AZPreps365 #WestValleyPreps @AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/4GDXbMZtoj
Michael Ortiz hit the PAT to give Saguaro a 14-0 lead at the 11:44 mark of the second quarter.
The Cobras were looking for a spark of momentum and tried a fake punt on their next series. Saguaro’s Ivan Martin swatted the pass down to give the Cats the ball in plus territory once again.
It looked like Cactus would get off the field without further damage but a late third-down flag for roughing the passer kept the drive alive for Saguaro. Dampier took full advantage on the next play, bulling in from 20 yards out to put the visitors up three scores and stun the overflow Cactus crowd.
Cactus finally got the ball moving on their fifth possession. A 37-yard pass hookup between Galvan and Joseph Lagafuaina started the march. Galvan kept for 10 more yards and running back Damian Jiles ran three times to set up a 3-yard rushing score by Aki Pulu:
Cactus gets a much-needed score from battering ram @AkiPulu7. @rameel_yaro PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 27, 2021
#5 @saguarofootball 21
#4 @CactusHSCobras 7
5:15 - 2nd Quarter
Open Division Quarterfinal #AZPreps365 #WestValleyPreps @AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/fJ9XSzEh0g
Rameel Yaro tacked on the PAT and Cactus trailed 21-7 with 5:15 left before halftime.
Needing a defensive stop, the Cobras couldn’t contend with Jacobs’ and Dampier’s speed and size.
It took just six plays before Dampier lobbed a 29-yard TD pass to Junius Marsh and when Michael Ortiz hit the PAT, the Sabercats led 28-7 at the break.
“Our O-line was dominating,” Dampier explained. “They set the tone and made my job easier.”
Cactus used the third quarter to get back in the game.
A Dampier fumble was recovered by the Cobras’ Justin Holmes. Four plays later, Jiles scored from a yard out:
After a Saguaro fumble, Cactus’ Damian Jiles scores from a yard out. Yaro PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 27, 2021
#5 @saguarofootball 28
#4 @CactusHSCobras 14
9:53 - 3rd Quarter
Open Division Quarterfinal #AZPreps365 #WestValleyPreps @AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/7uWXBtcNKK
Yaro’s PAT made it 28-14 but the Cobras weren’t done.
Another Saguaro lost fumble set up Cactus just 23 yards from paydirt. Galvan did the honors four plays later, beating the Sabercats D to the right side for an 11-yard touchdown scramble. Yaro again connected and the home crowd was energized with Cactus down 28-21.
“We lack in size but we play with a ton of heart,” Galvan said after the game.
Unbelievably, Saguaro lost a third fumble in the third quarter and this time Cactus looked to tie the game.
On 2nd and 24 at their own 41, Galvan was flushed out and lofted a pass downfield. A lone Saguaro defender tried to corral the pass but the ball hit the turf — or at least Cactus thought it did. Despite photographic evidence to the contrary, officials ruled the interception good and the Sabercats took over at their own 30.
Jacobs bulled ahead for 39 yards. Five plays later, Saguaro’s JoJo Clark rushed in from 2 yards out as the fourth quarter commenced and the lead was back to 14:
After a very questionable pick, Saguaro’s Joesph Clark scores a 2-yard rush TD. Ortiz PAT good.— Matt Loeschman (@MattLoeschman) November 27, 2021
#5 @saguarofootball 35
#4 @CactusHSCobras 21
11:55 - 4th Quarter
Open Division Quarterfinal #AZPreps365 #WestValleyPreps @AzNewsmedia pic.twitter.com/OwHKXnmSSC
Cactus punted on its next series and once more, the Cobras felt slighted on a play they thought their defense made in the clutch.
A scrum inside the Cactus 5 ended with the Cobras leaving the pile with the football before a whistle had blown. But officials gave the ball back to Saguaro and Dampier put the nail in the coffin with a 1-yard run with 3:51 left in the game:
With the win, the Sabercats have a date with top seeded Hamilton (11-0) in the Open Division semifinals next weekend. In the other semifinal, 6-seed Liberty will travel to take on 2-seed Chandler.
“Can’t wait for that,” Dampier admitted.
And just like that, a dream season is over for the previously unbeaten Cobras. In amassing the school's first undefeated regular season since 2005, Cactus had outscored its opponents 509-62.
“It’s a shame for my kids,” Joseph Ortiz said. “They should get to play for a championship but we made it to the Open and went 10-0 and that’s quite an accomplishment. I could not be prouder of this group — we didn’t quit tonight but we just couldn’t get it done.”
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