The Gila Ridge offense was sputtering while the defense rose to the challenge with the Hawks’ unbeaten record on the line.
Facing a first-quarter deficit for the first time since Week 1, Gila Ridge never seemed rattled in its 48-minute bout with Buckeye Union and came away with a 14-13 victory Friday night at Veterans Memorial Stadium.
There was a tense moment late, when Gila Ridge, up 14-13, failed to convert a 4th-and-8 from the Buckeye 30.
Two plays later, however, junior defensive back Tyler Faber picked off an errant throw sending the Gila Ridge fans into a frenzy.
“This is high school football and these are the games you want to be in,” said coach John Ellegood, whose team improved to 7-0 overall and 2-0 in 4A Southwest region play.
Not only is this the best start to a season in school history, it matches the best-ever season in school history. The Hawks have never won more than seven games in a season before, having reached this total of wins only three times before (most recently in 2012).
“It means a lot to this team and the school,” an elated Ellegood said. “We’ve never been 7-0 before and we have a good chance to continue this with our mindset and hunger.”
Just this week, his players in the locker room recognized the culture difference Ellegood has established during his early tenure.
“I was talking to my leaders this week,” Ellegood said. “They’re like ‘oh coach, you know you have this 0-0 mindset. We walk into the locker room on Monday and the first thing you focus on is our mistakes. It’s almost like we’re losing.’
I told them ‘you’re not losing, we’re winning. This is what it feels like winning and these are the expectations.’”
The expectations for Gila Ridge were high on Friday, taking on a very talented Buckeye team.
Buckeye displayed its speed just moments after the opening kick, as receiver Justin Rallason – who looked like a track star – reeled in a one-hand catch and dashed towards the end zone for a 72-yard touchdown.
Trailing has been rare for this Hawks football team, but it didn’t faze them.
Gila Ridge would answer two possessions later on a 9-play, 64-yard touchdown drive that generated life in the stadium.
Gila Ridge began to click on offense, scoring on its next possession. Quarterback Kaleb Cota found a wide-open Jonathan Noriega on 4th-and-4 from the 12-yard line for the touchdown and the lead.
It was an emphasis from the Gila Ridge coaching staff to get the ball into its playmakers hands across the middle. Buckeye stacked the box frequently and continuously dropped one of its safeties to stop the running game and Cota made them pay on several occasions.
Buckeye would answer, bringing the score to 14-13 at the break. But the visitors wouldn’t sniff the end zone in the second half thanks to Anthony Mejia-Acosta intercepting two big passes for the Gila Ridge defense.
Gila Ridge would march down the field on its opening drive of the half before Cota threw his only interception of the night inside the 5.
However, the senior quarterback never lost confidence, especially on the most critical offensive play of the night.
Facing 3rd-and-11 from their own 4-yard line with five minutes remaining, Cota dropped back in shotgun, stepped up in the pocket and delivered his best pass of the night into the outstretched arms of D’Angelo Jackson.
“I told him (Jackson), that was the game changing moment right there,” Ellegood said.
That pitch and catch helped propel the Hawks to victory on Friday, but their goals aren’t achieved yet and will have the opportunity to continue their winning streak next week at home against Youngker.