And then there were two.
Two touchdowns separating the competitors. Two straight victories in the season series between the two teams. And two remaining Division I football teams competing for the Arizona State Championship.
When Hamilton quarterback A.J. Thigpen broke free from the scrum for a 58-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter at Highland High School, there was no doubt in the minds of anyone on the property: we’ve seen this story before. The Hamilton Huskies in the state championship game is a surprise to no one. They punched their ticket again Friday night with a 21-7 victory over the Desert Ridge Jaguars.
Desert Ridge, the two-seed to Hamilton’s three-seed, came into Friday night’s match-up a gritty underdog. The smashmouth team, who made a season of run, run, run, and then, if you’ve got time for it, run some more, was short a veritable handful of future Saturday starters. Workhorse superstars J.J. Husar and Tarek Morrison, both 1,000 yard rushers, didn’t play due to injury.
Coach Jeremy Hathcock said they tried to change the system up to play to the strengths of the next men up, but there just wasn’t enough time.
Considering the circumstances, and the opponent, Hathcock had plenty to be proud of.
“I thought they did a great job on defense — they forced two turnovers,” Hathcock said. “Offensively, I’m proud of our guys for fighting hard. They’re just too new. It’s pretty hard when you lose your skill kids. We lost three superstars … But our kids fought hard.”
It was a game that looked winnable for the Jaguars. Even after back-up quarterback Brendon Smith got the ball stripped by sophomore defensive lineman Caleb Peart and returned for a 19-yard touchdown by senior Ethan Hendricks, the Jaguars only needed one touchdown to tie it. But a late score by Thigpen and a spirited defensive effort thwarted Desert Ridge’s hopes for a win.
Thigpen went 4-for-6 for 22 yards but added a 58-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter to give Hamilton some breathing room.
For a team playing the role of Goliath, however, Hamilton had its share of struggles. The perennial champs (reaching their sixth straight title game and trying for their sixth championship in 10 years) couldn’t get anything going on offense all night and instead relied on a dominant defense to get the job done.
The Huskies recorded five sacks and forced three turnovers on defense They also limited Desert Ridge to only three first downs in the second half.
Hamilton coach Steve Belles was right in his praise of his defense, whom he essentially credited with the win.
Belles said last Friday night, after getting the monkey off their back by beating the Desert Vista team who defeated them in last year’s trip to the state championship, that the key to beating Desert Ridge was “stopping the run.” Mission accomplished.
It certainly helped Goliath that David was suffering from a broken leg and a torn ACL in his run game, but handicapped or not, it was a victory of attrition for the stronger, healthier team Friday night.
Hamilton tore up the storybook this week, and now must hope they don’t fall victim to a narrative in the championship next week. Mountain Pointe, the regular season champs this year, will try to win its first ever State Championship against the Huskies at University of Phoenix Stadium next Saturday at noon.