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Sophomore quarterback Cleary stepping up for No. 5 Shamrocks
The week after scrimmaging Kofa before the season, the Yuma Catholic football team finished watching film.
Shamrock coach Rhett Stallworth ended the drama by finally naming starters for positions players were fighting for. At the end, he named the most coveted position in high school football.
Jagan Cleary, the sophomore, was officially named the Shamrocks' starting quarterback.
“I was definitely excited. I was fighting all through the summer for it,” said Cleary, who will start for the Shamrocks in their semifinal game against No. 1 Northwest Christian at 7 p.m. Saturday at Arcadia High School in Phoenix.
“He just did a couple of things the other quarterback couldn't do,” Stallworth said. “He just had a better ball. His reads were better. He didn't have a stronger arm, but he had a better touch and got it into places.”
Cleary filled the shoes of former Shamrock quarterback Tommy Pistone, a 6-foot-4 gunslinger who passed for 3,527 yards and 40 touchdowns his senior season en route to leading Yuma Catholic to their first state championship before heading to Arizona Western. Pistone was also named the 2011 Yuma Sun/Yuma Rotary Club Offensive Player of the Year.
“I definitely know I wasn't going to come out and be as good as Tommy was. Hopefully I can get there someday,” Cleary said.
Luckily for Cleary, the sophomore had plenty of help returning from last year's state championship team. Glen Justice, Jose Valencia and Peter Hurtado all returned on the offensive line. Also back was senior running back Kody Hazlett, who has rushed for 2,373 yards and 32 touchdowns in 2012.
“We never put any of that pressure on him. I told him we don't need him to go win games for us, just don't lose them for us,” Stallworth said. “You work with what you got and we worked around his strengths.”
It turned out that Cleary has been just fine under center for the Shamrocks. The sophomore has completed more than 60 percent of his passes for 2,127 yards and 28 touchdowns so far this season. In his first two playoff games, Cleary has gone 25 for 38 with 613 yards and eight touchdowns.
“He's getting better because he's seeing the reads better and understanding what's expected in the system,” Stallworth said.
“It makes sure everybody has to play back and not stack the box. It's a dual threat,” Hazlett said.
That's not to say it has been clear sailing for Cleary this season. In the third game of the year against Estrella Foothills, which finished the season as the No. 5 team at Division IV, Cleary started the game with two interceptions — to go along with the two completions he had at the time. He responded by finishing 10 for 15 with three touchdowns in a 35-21 Shamrock win.
“After that game, I knew our team could go a long ways,” Cleary said.
In the Shamrocks' quarterfinal game against No. 4 Scottsdale Christian, he threw a 75-yard interception for a touchdown to give the Eagles a 13-0 lead five minutes into the game.
Once again, Cleary bounced back. He finished the game 10 for 15 with 312 yards and three touchdowns.
“The best thing is he's dealing with adversity,” Stallworth said. “After starting the game with a pick-six, I was pretty hard on them from there. But it was something he was making the similar mistake during practice all week and we were talking about it, that's why I was so fired up.”
Stallworth said that as each week goes by, he's placing more responsibility on the shoulders of his quarterback. Cleary has become a play-maker, not just a manager for the Shamrock offense. With a few mistakes along the way, Cleary has made Stallworth's decision to go with a sophomore a big reason the Shamrocks are in the semifinals.
“I definitely knew when I got named the starting quarterback I had to take things more serious and work harder,” Cleary said. “And I knew that if I made a mistake, my team would be there behind me telling me it's all right, just get through it.”
Jesse Severson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 539-6881. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/YSJesseSeverson.