Sunrise Mountain defense demolishes second round stumbling block

Sunrise Mountain senior safety Bobby Ramirez stands up Cactus Shadows senior receiver Isaiah Shipley during Friday's 4A quarterfinal. {Shannon Ramirez of SMHS Football Family/For West Valley Preps]

Richard Smith
West Valley Preps

To end its second round hex on its home field, Sunrise Mountain had to face its demons one last time Friday night.

And as it has for most of the season, the Mustangs’ defense was there to provide the missing element from the last two seasons. Their moment in the spotlight came with an 8-7 lead early in the second quarter of the 4A quarterfinal.

Junior tailback Drake Flores had just fumbled on his second straight carry and No. 8 Cave Creek Cactus Shadows recovered it at the Mustangs 15. The Falcons called a pass a few plays later, on first and goal from the 7.

Senior defensive back Dylan Carioscia picked off senior quarterback Austin Young in the end zone and everyone in purple and yellow breathed a sigh of relief. From there, No. 1 Sunrise Mountain (11-1) regained its regular season form and routed Cactus Shadows (7-5) 49-13.

“I was supposed to get the weak side guy but the other safety picked him up. I saw the back leak out and I jumped it. It was good and the whole team picked it up,” Carioscia said. “After that, we played Mustang ball.”

“Mustang ball,” sputtered early as Coach Michael Hudnutt’s heavy underdogs came out playing inspired and well-prepared on both sides of the ball.

Sunrise Mountain converted a fourth and six play from the Falcons’ 41 on junior quarterback Keegan Freid’s 20-yard strike to senior receiver Angel Ruiz. Two plays later, Flores scored from 16 yards out on a zone read handoff. Freid added a two-point run.

But Cactus Shadows moved the ball, and shortly after their own fourth down try was snuffed out, their defense forced a rare punt by the Mustangs. Flores’ first fumble was recovered by senior linebacker Michael Marchica at the Sunrise Mountain 22.

The Falcons caught the defense over-pursuing on the next snap, a reverse to senior receiver Grant Thom that turned into a 22-yard throwback touchdown pass to Young.

“I wouldn’t say it was early jitters. I really don’t think so. (Cactus Shadows) came prepared,” Sunrise Mountain Coach Steve Decker said. “They came out ready to go and we had to make sure we stood with them and took what they had. They had a great game plan and their kids played extremely hard and matched us in the first quarter.”

The Mustangs broke free of their past in stages. Carioscia’s interception energized the offense, which reeled off three straight first downs.

Junior receiver Jay Anderson lined up in the backfield and took a handoff on the draw play. He weaved to the home sideline, lowered his shoulder to knock back a Falcon and leaped just inside the pylon for a 15-yard touchdown.

Yet the offense still wasn’t quite itself, as a three-and-out the next drive showed. Once again, the defense stepped up after allowing a 32-yard connection from Young to Thom, plus a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty.

Cactus Shadows had first and 10 at the Mustangs 13. But the defense stuffed senior Dylan Kelleher for a loss of one, followed by sacks from senior defensive end Jake Radon and senior linebacker Gavin Chaddock that knocked the Falcons back to the 25.

After the visitors missed a field goal, Fried put together a masterful two-minute drive. Sunrise Mountain started on its 20 with 1:19 until halftime.

After two, wayward passes, the junior quickly completed four for 22, 9, 11 and 13 yards, then ran for eight more. Decker called his last time out of the half with 22.6 on the clock, then Fried rolled out and dashed for the corner on a three-yard touchdown that set the 21-7 halftime score.

“It was huge for us to march down the field in a minute. It gave us a little bit of breathing room going into halftime and we could reset,” Decker said. “I think that was the pivotal part of the game.”

Flores got the chance to atone for his mistakes early and ran with it. He broke free for 75 yards on the first play from scrimmage in the third quarter.

Two runs later, his seven-yard scoring run put the home team up 28-7.

“That’s something we talk about as a team, owing up to your mistakes, and he made a couple big mistakes early. He wasn’t picking up his blocks and put a couple balls on the ground. We said, ‘You owe us something.’ He came out in the second half and did his job. That was huge.” Decker said. “And Coach Fox made some great adjustments in the blocking scheme at halftime.”

Sunrise Mountain essentially put the game away on Flores’ 4-yard touchdown run later in the third.

Cactus Shadows responded with its best drive of the night. That is, until Carioscia read Young’s eyes and picked up another interception, this one at his team’s 8 yard line.

“Earlier in the night I got beat by him. I saw him fake a block and I just dropped back and knew where it was going,” Carioscia said.

A patchwork secondary stepped up, after top cornerback Arrack Dowe was suspended for disciplinary reasons. Decker said after the game that Dowe can be reinstated for the semifinal if he meets several conditions.

Anderson moved into Dowe’s role in the secondary along with junior Coltin Church, Decker said.

Given the Falcons lack of a running game outside of misdirection plays, though, Young performed well. He completed 17 of 30 passes for 218 yards, and tossed a one-yard score to Thom to cut the deficit to 35-13.

After letting some rushers in during the first half, the Mustangs’ offensive line gave Freid time and Flores and Anderson holes in the second half.

Fried threw a 14-yard dart to Ruiz for a touchdown and Anderson finished the scoring with a 10-yard run up the gut.

“We talked at halftime about playing smarter and communicating pre-play,” senior offensive tackle Jake Wagner said.

Sunrise Mountain qualified for its first semifinal in program history, after losing five previous quarterfinals, including in 2012, 2015 and 2016 on its home field.

While those three teams were based around flashy offenses, and the last two relied on record-setting quarterback Chase Cord to outscore opponents, this group did it with defense. More than that, they have been led by senior class that largely entered the season unheralded.

“It’s amazing. Everyone buys into the program and, like you said, we don’t have selfish players. Everyone does their job and it all works out,” Wagner said.

Now Sunrise Mountain steps up in class. All season they, Scottsdale Saguaro, Tucson Salpointe Catholic and Gilbert Higley have been the clear top four teams in 4A — and that’s the final four.

Sunrise Mountain and Salpointe have barely seen each other in recent years. So their semifinal matchup at 7 p.m. Nov. 17 at Ironwood High School should be very intriguing.

The Mustangs and Lancers actually have met before, but not in the last decade. Salpointe handily swept a two-game series in 2005 and 2006.

That will mean nothing as these two teams that are largely foreign to each other prepare for the next week.

“I know a lot about (Salpointe) and basically, all I know is how good they are and how well they’re coached. That’s enough,” Decker said. “We have to be prepared. They’re a special football team.”

Sunrise Mountain senior receiver Angel Ruiz throws a stiff arm to try to avoid the tackle of Cactus Shadows senior Tommy Brown during the Nov. 10 4A quarterfinal in Peoria. [Shannon Ramirez of SMHS Football Family/Special to West Valley Preps]

Score by Quarters

Cactus Shadows – 0 7 0 6 – 13

Sunrise Mountain – 8 13 14 14 – 49

Scoring Summary

SM – Drake Flores 16 run (Keegan Freid run)

CS – Austin Young 22 pass from Grant Thom (Lucas Seaton kick)

SM – Jay Anderson 15 run (pass failed)

SM – Freid 3 run (Jaxen Meskimen kick)

SM – Flores 7 run (Meskimen kick)

SM – Flores 4 run (Meskimen kick)

CS – Thom 1 pass from Young (kick failed)

SM – Ruiz 14 pass from Freid (Meskimen kick)

SM– Anderson 10 run (Meskimen kick)

Top Performers

Cactus Shadows — Young threw for 218 yards. Isaiah Shipley caught 5 passes for 94 yards

Sunrise Mountain — Senior safety Dylan Carioscia had two interceptions after the Falcons entered the red zone. Anderson, a wide receiver, rushed for 88 yards and 2 TD on six carries. He also four passes for 48 yards.

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