Flagstaff Coconino felt a bit of déjà vu Friday night against Cactus in the 4A state playoffs.
Coconino played the hosting Corbas close and competitive in the first half, keeping tight with the fourth-seeded offensive powerhouse. Cactus led 13-7 at the break.
The fifth-seeded Panthers got timely interceptions and stops, and even struck first offensively off a 54-yard touchdown run by fullback Tyson Fousel after he bowled through Cactus off a direct snap.
But that was the first half. Cactus (7-2) "won" the second half 28-0 and the 4A playoff quarterfinal 41-7.
"Once we figured out what they were doing we made our adjustments. At the same time we wore them down. They were tired at halftime," Cactus coach Joseph Ortiz stated in a Twitter interview.
Cactus blew the game open behind a dominant third quarter, similar to the way the Cobras did in 2019 at Cromer Stadium. This time around, the loss ends a great Coconino (8-1) season with a 41-7 loss in Glendale.
"The future is bright, I think everybody knows that," Panthers head coach Mike Lapsley said. "Those guys at the freshmen and JV level dominated all year. They are hungry and seeing what our guys are doing. The seniors really set the tone for our program. They are exceptional young men both on and off the field. I am proud that they were part of our program and I am sure after this sinks in a little I'll hug them a little bit harder."
Cactus advances to the 4A semifinals to face No. 1 Casa Grande while Coconino ends one of the best seasons in recent program history following an undefeated regular season and second straight 4A Grand Canyon Region title.
Cactus stifled a normally dominant Coconino ground game in the blowout win.
The Cobras kept Panthers star running back Zach Bennett to a season-low 39 rushing yards on 21 touches. All night his running room was nearly nonexistent as Cactus plugged each whole and swarmed him at the line of scrimmage.
Instead of Bennett, Fousel did about as much as he could to keep his team afloat with 89 rushing yards on nine carries.
"We prepared all week. We knew exactly what they were doing. Credit to out DC Brian Belles on getting the defense prepared," Ortiz stated.
Cactus meanwhile had two running backs go for 85 and 71 yards in Aki Pulu and Damian Jiles and three different backs with rushing scores in the win. Junior back Aki Pulu made plays all over the field in the win, including some that fit the script of a disastrous passing game for the Panthers.
Cactus senior receiver Justin Gomez catches a touchdown pass in front of Flagstaff Coconino senior defensive back Jacob Begay in the Cobras' 41-7 win in the Nov. 27 4A football quarterfinal. [Courtesy Ed Russell Photography/For West Valley Preps]
Normally, although not the focal point of a run-heavy Coconino offense, the passing game is a dangerous weapon for Lapsley to employ. It often has caught teams off guard leading to deep touchdowns off play action or just simply when the opposing defense expects a run.
Friday night the passing game was nonexistent.
Panthers quarterback Ryan Seery went 2-of-10 passing for just 12 yards while throwing three interceptions, one that was picked off by Pulu for a 30-yard demoralizing touchdown. Aside from even the interception, Seery had chances.
He missed Jacob Clouse on a wide-open try in the middle of the field with a ton of space to work in the second quarter, a play that easily could have led to a score for the Panthers who were tied with the Cobras at 7-7.
Later in the second after the Cocoino defense picked off Cactus QB Will Galvan, Seery threw his first pick of the night to Pulu -- who had two -- setting up Cactus with a short field at the Coconino 20-yard line.
Galvan just about scored on a QB sneak, only for Pulu to punch it in from short to put the Cobras up 13-7 with 6:44 on the clock in the first half.
Things were looking OK for Coconino. But then the third quarter changed that. Cactus scored 22 points in the third to blow the lead open and take a 35-7 advantage by the end of it.
The route in the third started with a quick scoring drive by Cactus that took just 1:36 off the clock. Then came the pick six.
On the ensuing drive after the Cactus score in the third, Seery was pressured by a group of defenders and threw a pass to a target that didn’t seem to see it coming. Pulu jumped the route and bolted for a 30-yard score to put Cactus up 28-7 in just a matter of minutes.
After a few drives where both defenses forced the other’s offense to stall out, Cactus eventually found some daylight.
Cactus used a long and methodical drive as it looked to drain the clock with the three-score lead. Eventually the Cobras got within Coconino territory and Galvan danced through the Coconino defense off an option-read to put his team up 35-7 with 3:37 left in the third.
While Coconino didn’t stop fighting from there, it couldn’t find the end zone. Cactus did once more off a strike from Galvan from about eight yards out to put the final touch on the blowout win.
Lance Hartzler is the sports editor for the Arizona Daily Sun if Flagstaff. Read his work here. Richard Smith contributed to this story.