CASA GRANDE — Midway through the third quarter Friday night, Jake Barro pulled his team aside and delivered a message.
“Let's pick ourselves up off the ground and get refocused,” the Casa Grande coach said, an hour later, relaying a directive that the Cougars executed to perfection in an eventual 41-28 win. He spoke with a small group of reporters who gathered to ask him about delivering Casa Grande to its first-ever state championship game, where his team will represent this town of 55,653 at Sun Devil Stadium.
Early in the night, that trip seemed inevitable, as the Cougars amassed a 21-0 lead and dominated both sides of the ball. Then, suddenly, it didn’t. Gilbert Mesquite — the two-time defending 5A champions — scored on its final drive of the first half to keep the game within arm’s reach.
In the second half, the Wildcats forced a quick punt from Casa Grande before driving 60 yards on seven plays to make it 21-14. That’s when Barro felt the game slipping away.
“We didn't want to lose momentum,” Barro said. “We were getting there.”
On Casa Grande’s next set of downs, it faced a third-and-9 from its own 34. A game that once felt impossible to lose teetered on the precipice.
All night, senior quarterback Angel Flores had dominated with his feet for the Cougars. Facing a third-and-10 on Casa Grande’s previous offensive drive, Flores looked to run prematurely and came up well short of the first down.
This time, he stood steady in the pocket and hit senior receiver Demetrius Garrett in the slot for a momentum-buckling 20-yard gain.
“(Flores) did everything he needed to do,” Barro said. “He really just — he's an absolute leader, he did what he needed to do, took care of business. I love him, man. He's a heck of a football player.”
Seven plays later, Flores was in the end zone, notching the third of his four rushing touchdowns. Three of them came from inside the 10-yard line, on designed runs aimed at maximizing Flores’ power and vision.
The first — the one that set the tone for the entire night back in the second quarter — was never intended to be a touchdown. Facing a fourth-and-1 from the Mesquite 35, Barro called Flores’ number to get the first down. The play ran right, but Flores bounced it back to the left.
“I saw linebackers fold and blitz to the right so I made a decision to cut it back and I just had to beat the corner right there,” Flores said. He did just that, juking the defensive back en route to a long, winding touchdown that provided Casa Grande with the buffer it would eventually need in the third quarter.
That rushing ability, combined with the passing acumen that has seen him throw for 2,272 yards and 22 touchdowns this year, earned Flores an offer to Northern Arizona, where he committed Thursday.
By Friday night, though, that was on the backburner. The focus was here, then eventually towards Tempe, where the Cougars will realize a season-long dream when they face San Tan Poston Butte for the 5A title.
Five plays after Flores made it 28-14, they could finally peek towards that matchup. With Mesquite on the ropes, Wildcats quarterback Gerardo Saenz fired an errant pass over the middle that Casa Grande defensive back Jake Sylvestre intercepted.
Seconds later, he crossed into the end zone with a pick-six and leapt, pirouetting, into the arms of teammates DeAndray Kelley and Andon Diaz. The rest of the Cougars fled the sideline in celebration, sprinting to meet them in the north end zone.
They knew, in that moment, what would become official 8:51 later. Casa Grande — a dormant, 2-8 program when Barro took over in 2014 and a middling, 4-6 one when Flores arrived four years later — is going to the state championship game.
“This means the world, really,” Flores said. “Just giving this community hope and something to be really excited for. This is all I wanted to do.”
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @theo_mackie.
Poston Butte recovers, beats Glendale
By Jeremiah Sosa Special to the Republic
For the first time in school history, the Poston Butte Broncos punched a ticket to the 4A State Championship game, after defeating the Glendale Cardinals 41-20, in their semifinal game Friday night.
The Broncos got punched in the mouth early, allowing a 74-yard touchdown run on the first play from scrimmage. However, the team didn't let the early defensive mistake shake them up. The Broncos offense went on to notch three unanswered touchdowns following Glendale's score, which had them in great position going into halftime.
In the second half, the Broncos were able to easily drive the ball down the field through their running game, which was able to get them into the end zone, and ice the game.
Twenty-one seconds into play, Glendale senior running back Keyon Walker took the handoff, shook off a tackle, and took the football 74 yards into the end zone to give his Cardinals an early 7-0 lead.
Poston Butte answered Glendale’s early touchdown with a touchdown of their own. Senior quarterback Drew Dalmacio took the snap, and walked two-yards into the end zone to tie up the game late in the first quarter.
Dalmacio found the end zone once again during the Broncos next possession, finding tight end Connor Lopez wide open for the 22-yard touchdown, to put the Broncos up 13-7.
After an interception by senior linebacker Riley Nolan, the Broncos were able to pour three unanswered touchdowns on the Cardinals defense. The third came from a 15-yard quarterback run from Dalmacio, to put his team up 20-7.
Glendale was able to stop the bleeding with a six-yard touchdown from senior tight end Logan Smith that put the score at 20-14 going into halftime.
Coming out of their locker room at halftime, the Broncos pulled off a methodical drive, that was capped off by senior running back Octavious Joe, who walked in an 11-yard touchdown untouched, to put the Broncos up 27-14.
Joe then walked in his second touchdown of the game just minutes later, putting the game out of reach, 34-14.
The last Broncos score came from the legs of Dalmacio, who drove in a two-yard touchdown to put up 41 points on the Glendale defense.
Dalmacio was one of the two standout performers in Friday night's game against the Cardinals. The senior recorded four total touchdowns in the game, three on the ground and one through the air.
The other player of the game was running back Joe. Poston Butte heavily fed the ball to Joe in the second half, a half in which he was able to rush for big gains, and record two rushing touchdowns.
"(Glendale) was real solid, they were real physical with us, but we've worked at it since the beginning of summer, even before that in spring ball," Dalmacio said. "All we did was to get stronger and stronger, and we've been practicing and practicing, just for this moment to outwork other teams."
The Broncos were able to outwork the Cardinals, and after the victory, Poston Butte Head Coach Dain Thompson couldn't help but have a smile on his face.
"I'm just smiling a lot because it's exciting for (our players), and it's exciting for our school," Thompson said. "These boys, these young men, the journey that they've been on right now has been awesome. I'm just so elated... but the journey is not over. We have some work to do and we're gonna be ready for it."
The Poston Butte Broncos will face the No. 2 Casa Grande Cougars in the 4A State Championship on Dec. 10, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona high school football 4A semifinals: Casa Grande, Poston Butte to face off in championship