And so they meet again.
For the seventh time in four years and in the third straight postseason, the Yuma Catholic football team battles Northwest Christian.
This round between the two heavyweights of Division V comes in an Arizona Interscholastic Association semifinal bout between the No. 5 Shamrocks and No. 1 Crusaders at 7 p.m. today at Arcadia High School in Phoenix.
“It kind of gets monotonous. We know it's going to go four quarters and going to be a dogfight,” Shamrock linebacker Andy Determan said. “We know what they do. They know what we do. We know it's going to be a battle.”
The games have been as incredible in their closeness as they have for their frequency. None of the previous six meetings has been decided by more than a touchdown. Two of the games came in the state championship — Yuma Catholic winning 21-19 in 2011 and Northwest Christian surviving 30-27 in 2010.
“It's like a goal to beat Northwest. It's not a true rivalry, but to play that team that many times — and to lose the way we've lost and win the way we've won,” Shamrock senior offensive lineman Glen Justice said. “It feels like every game we've played, we've played our hardest and were neck-and-neck the entire game.”
But more often than not, it's been the Crusaders who have come out on top. Yuma Catholic's win in last year's state title was the only meeting the Shamrocks have won. The Crusaders are the only team to beat Yuma Catholic more than once since Rhett Stallworth took over — and they've beaten them five times. The more recent victory came in a 16-14 Crusader win in the season-opener at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
“I thought they were going to beat the living tar out of us. We played horrible in our scrimmage. Maybe the worst I've ever seen us play,” said Northwest Christian coach Dave Inness, who took over in 2010. “I don't know, we just played well.”
“There was a few times we played them, they were just that much more superior athletically than us that I thought we were lucky to keep it close, including the win for the state title,” Stallworth said. “This time around, I think we didn't do a good job playing them. I think we left a lot of points out there on the field and aided them in scoring some points too. I really feel we should have won that first game and I think it's one we gave away.”
Leading the way for the Shamrocks is senior running back Kody Hazlett, who has rushed for 2,373 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2012. In the Shamrocks' loss to the Crusaders to start the year, the 5-foot-8, 166-pound senior rushed for 95 yards — the only time this season he's been held to fewer than 100 yards.
“He's been a thorn in my side for four games now,” said Inness, who also believes the Shamrocks' offensive line is the best they've had in years. “He runs hard. He just runs hard. He's not afriad. He gets better as the game goes on.”
While the Shamrocks have possibly the biggest offensive threat, Stallworth knows with 6-foot-3, 198-pound safety Trevor Osborne, the Crusaders have the best defensive player on the field — and it's not even close.
“He's the best defensive player in the state by a long shot at our level. Probably in the top five at all levels,” Stallworth said of Osborne, who has 97 tackles and four interceptions on the year. “We'll have to account for him and make sure he doesn't disrupt our offense too much. He's the key component to this game. He's just got a nasty disposition. He's very athletic. He's 6-3, 200 pounds and fast and tough and he runs and he hits. Every play he's coming to knock somebody's head off.”
Offensively, the Crusaders are led by senior quarterback Kyle Shipp, who has passed for 1,744 yards and 22 touchdowns with four interceptions — his favorite target being Osborne, who has 38 catches for 728 yards and 12 touchdowns. On the ground, senior Hunter McShanag has rushed for 1,319 yards and 21 touchdowns.
“They can run, they can throw. They're balanced like we are,” Stallworth said. “You can't put all your eggs into one basket on defense.”
The amount of times that fate brought these teams together the past four years seems to boggle both coaches. The way the AIA brackets worked this year made it impossible for the two schools to play for a third straight state championship. Instead, only the winner gets the coveted ticket and another win over their worthy foe.
“They're like us, they have a program in place,” Stallworth said. “They work hard, they have a good game plan. People throw that word ‘program' around too loosely. It's a program. They know what they're doing.”
Jesse Severson can be reached at email@example.com or at 539-6881.