All phases of the football team contributed to this dominant season of Cactus football, as the 10-0 Cobras averaged 51 points a game while allowing only 6 a contest.
Given the nature of fast-paced modern spread offenses in high school football - including the one directed by Cactus head coach Joseph Ortiz - the 6 points allowed a game tends to stand out more.
The defense returned all but three starters and several key reserves from the 2020 4A state runner up that allowed 16.5 points per game. So Ortiz and defensive coordinator Brian Belles knew the unit could be special.
But the first half of the season stamped this unit as a force of nature.
“The opener was a shock to me. I know Mesquite lost Ty Thompson but they’re still a formidable opponent. For us to do that to them right out of the gate,” Belles said. “Then the Sunrise and Desert Edge games. Sunrise puts up points on everybody. The way our kids played opened a lot of eyes around the state. For us it was a reassurance that they’re pretty good,” Belles said.
Thompson led Mesquite to two straight 4A titles and now plays for Oregon. But the Wildcats averaged 33.5 points in the 10 games after their opener against Cactus in NAU’s Walkup Skydome.
The Cobras trounced Mesquite 56-6.
“It’s definitely because of our defensive staff getting the game plan ready and going through film with us on Sunday, making sure we know what we’re doing at all times,” senior linebacker Ata Teutupe said. “Even if they come up with a new play, we have coverages that can take away.”
The defense starts with Teutupe in the middle and fellow returning starting linebackers in senior Aki Pulu and junior Tovia Vito.
Teutupe again leads Cactus in tackles and once again defensive end Justin Holmes was second, in addition to being one of the top pass rushers.
Holmes said he talked to Teutupe after the first week and told him they didn’t want to get too cocky and believe they were part of special defense already.
Three weeks later there was no denying it, even for Holmes, Teutupe and fellow seniors Jojo Lagafuaina and Andy Morales. Cactus visited Sunrise Mountain Sept. 24 and put the clamps on the defending 5A champs in a 50-7 rout.
“That week of practice we had a great game plan. We practiced hard all week and we were focused and dominant,” Lagafuaina said.
The other big win over a 5A contender came two weeks later when current No. 3 seed Desert Edge brought its big line and pounding running game to Cactus.
The Scorpions average 168 rushing yards a game - in its other 10 games. In Cactus’ 42-14 win Oct. 8 Desert Edge was limited to 49 yards on the ground. Those two touchdowns are the most points given up by the Cobras all year.
“Other teams always think we’re undersized and they’re 6-4, 220. But we have our speed and we can beat people on the outside and the inside and use our technique to beat them off the line,” Teutupe said.
Cactus senior linebacker Ata Teutupe sacks Desert Edge senior quarterback Adryan Lara during the Cobras' 42-14 home win Oct. 8. [James T. Abraham/For West Valley Preps]
Make no mistake, the Cactus defense is undersized. Ends Holmes (5-10, 185) and junior Dom Solano (6-3, 200) flank some beef inside in senior tackles Vincent Burgo (5-8, 240) and Mason Cullop (6-4, 265) - though the biggest defensive regular is a full time starting offensive guard and gets frequent breaks on defense.
Pulu (5-10, 215), Teutupe (6-0, 195) and Vito (5-10, 175) are not the biggest linebacking crew.
“Seeing big guys doesn’t matter much to me. I know what I can do and I’m pretty confident in my ability to dominate,” Holmes said.
He has, pacing the Cobras with 11.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss. Solano took over as the other defensive end, the one true defensive position of uncertainty this offseason, and made it his own with 62 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks.
Whatever it sacks in size, the front seven more than makes up for in speed, technique and smarts.
“Justin Holmes is a problem for a lot of offenses because of his speed. Our linebacking corps are all back and they bring a physicality. But the mental part of the game, being able to line our defense up and knowing tendencies, has been critical to our success,” Belles said.
The secondary is the deepest spot with Lagafuaina, Morales, junior Polo Banuelos sometimes joined by starting quarterback Will Galvan.
More often, though, senior defensive back Ryan Griswold joins them. Belles credits Griswold and senior defensive tackle D’Andre Porras for building depth at two key spots so the quarterback and offensive line leader aren’t worn out.
“We knew Will had to play both ways and he plays both ways in big games. We rest him in other games and keep him fresh like that. Same with Mason Cullop and our other two-way guys. But when push comes to shove, they’re our best 11 and they have to play on both sides of the ball,” Ortiz said.
Lagafuaina also sees double duty and leads the team in receptions. Pulu (see below) has run for 363 yards on just 44 carries as the power back.
#WestValleyPreps #Azpreps365 Cactus makes a concerted effort to run the ball to start the second half. 8 of 9 plays on 77-yard scoring drive are runs, though one was a scramble. @AkiPulu7 goes for 34 on a wraparound draw. Pulu scores 12 TD on fourth down & 5. 23-14 Cobras 3Q pic.twitter.com/YaqLloCJ6n— Richard Smith (@RsmithYWV) October 9, 2021
Morales paces in interceptions with 5.
Look for more two-way play Friday in the game in the Open Division - for the state’s top eight teams in 4A-5A.
That’s partly because #5 Scottsdale Saguaro (9-1) is almost certain to be the Cobras’ toughest opponent yet. And partly because the bye week allowed this smaller roster - 41 players at a school with less than 1,2000 students - a chance to heal.
“We’re banged up a little bit so just getting healthy an extra week is helping. We can install our game plan and not have to rush it,” Ortiz said.
Saguaro certainly brings in the most diverse and dangerous offense the Cobras defense has faced. The Sabercats come at you with multiple quarterbacks (Ridge Docekal and Devon Dampier), running backs (Jaedon Matthews and Bryan Bogardus) and receivers (Javen Jacobs and Joseph Clark)
Saguaro is the name brand, with players in every position group boasting multiple major college offers. #4 Cactus can’t match that but the Cobras have accomplished high school players across the board and don’t appear overmatched like in their last meeting with the Sabercats - a 2018 4A playoff rout.
“They got their dudes. They’re loaded as they normally are. They’re fast and big. They’re strong and well coached,” Ortiz said. “Now we finally are at that point where we have the kids too. It’s just going to come down to execution and who wants it more.”
Saguaro stamped its ticked with impressive wins over 5A title contenders Horizon (48-23) and Notre Dame Prep (42-28) in the last four weeks. Cactus has been in 4A region play recently but showed their bona fides by cruising past 5A contenders Desert Edge and Sunrise Mountain and 4A title hopefuls Mesquite and Poston Butte.
While Cactus does miss out on being the overwhelming favorite in the 4A playoffs, there is something special about being the top small school called up to the open (fellow 4A team American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek nabbed the #8 spot).
“It means a lot because it shows we’re one of the best teams in Arizona. We’re really excited for next week. This could be the biggest home game in Cactus history. We want to put on a show, impress everybody and show them why we are one of the best teams in Arizona,” Morales said.
Ortiz is in his fourth year as coach and witnessing the program he planned to build coming to fruition.
While the path to the title is exponentially more difficult with the likes of Saguaro and probably two 6A conference heavyweights in the way, being in elite company is an honor in itself. MaxPreps recently ranked the Arizona Open Division as the seventh toughest high school football bracket in the nation.
“I think this team deserves a championship. We’re in the open so we’re going to try and go after it there. I think it’s huge for this program, where we’ve gone in four years, just getting better and better,” Ortiz said. “Having the community behind us and seeing the support and seeing how excited everybody is, it’s big for our program and kids wanting to come here. To be that West Valley power, that’s what we want. It’s all a credit to this group. They’re amazing and we wouldn’t be here without them.”
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