PHOENIX — To say Saguaro’s game against Thunderbird Friday night was a “must-win” would be a little bit of hyperbole.
An 0-2 start would not have meant the end of the season for the two-time defending state champions, and no, this was not the biggest game on their schedule.
Still, the 43-39 victory over the Chiefs (0-2, 0-2) could not have come at a better time.
“Not that anybody looks ahead but we’ve got some real tough games on our schedule,” Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said.
This one wasn’t easy.
The Sabercats (1-1, 1-1), whose late-game offensive heroics were for naught last week against Paradise Valley, once again scored with just over a minute left to take the lead in the fourth quarter.
Only this week they were able to hang on to win a back-and-forth game that made the phrase “defense is optional” a way of life.
Thunderbird, after being forced to punt on its first drive of the game, went on to score touchdowns on each of its next five possessions. In that mix was a three touchdown passes by junior Jake Glatting as well as a pair of touchdown runs by senior Kani Benoit.
Benoit ran for 204 yards on the night and scored three times, the longest of which came on a 95-yard run that gave Thunderbird at 26-21 lead early in the third quarter.
But there was just too much Saguaro. Or, at least, just enough Saguaro.
“I don’t know if I would have slept this week if we didn’t pull this one out,” Mohns said.
Mohns will sleep well in large part because of the play of junior quarterback Luke Rubenzer, who completed 21-of-28 passes for 314 yards and three touchdowns while also picking up 158 yards and two scores on the ground. While most would focus on his three-yard scamper into the end zone that gave his team the lead with less than two minutes remaining, it may have been his 57-yard run early in the fourth quarter that was the most important for his team’s morale.
“It really gets you pumping and it really motivates everyone around you,” Rubenzer said of the run. “Just try to get everyone hyped up, especially in the fourth quarter, just try to finish like that.”
Unlike last week when Rubenzer could only watch from the sideline as his defense gave up the winning score with one second remaining, he was able to do something to make sure his team held on.
Injuries forced the quarterback to play safety most of the second half, meaning someone who Mohns said doesn’t really know how to play the position was asked to help slow down an offense they had trouble stopping all night.
“Seven (Rubenzer’s number) is a baller, seven’s a stud,” Mohns said. “The kid is the ultimate competitor. I love the kid to death. I say my prayers every night that I have him for another year after this year.”