Nine weeks after several guys cried in the end zone after a Week 1 loss to Chaparral, the Saguaro football team is not on any Division III team's postseason "wish list."
A valiant effort by Marcos de Niza fell short, as most valiant efforts this season have against the Sabercats. Saguaro is rolling into the playoffs after a 46-36 road victory on Thursday night because of the usual suspects: Luke Rubenzer, Christian Kirk, J.T. Nettleton and Isaiah Bradley.
What looked like a blowout after the first quarter turned into a defensive stalemate a majority of the second half, until Marcos made its move and Saguaro came through in the clutch late in the fourth quarter.
Ten penalties, a few defensive lapses and woes in the kicking game still couldn't stop Saguaro. It turned into the type of game Saguaro coach Jason Mohns remembered from his day in 8-man football, where two-point conversions were more a norm than exception.
"I'm proud of this team for going on the road, against a really good team like (Marcos) - they're going to make a run in Division II - and finding ways to win," Mohns said. "There's a lot of good senior leadership here."
A lot of talent, too. The Sabercats (9-1) spoke of making that emotional, Week 1 loss to Chaparral their last of the season, and so far they enter next week's playoffs on a nine-game winning streak as the likely No. 2 seed when Saturday's playoff brackets are revealed.
Saguaro wasn't likely to fall below No. 4 regardless of Thursday's outcome. The big question now is whether Marcos (6-4) can hang on to the No. 8 seed in Division II to secure a first-round home game.
Despite several dropped passes, the Josh Eckley-led offense racked up yards and points, and a defense stood firm for stretches of the third and fourth quarters against Saguaro, the Padres are trying to wipe the regular season slate clean.
Games against Horizon, Chaparral, Laveen Cesar Chavez and Tucson Salpointe Catholic in the first half of the season took a toll. But Padres coach Roy Lopez felt the second half (featuring Campo Verde, Mesquite and Saguaro) took a bigger toll, largely aided by injuries.
In addition to Eckley's gimpy ankle which cost him playing time in the middle of the season, the Padres had between four and six starters out with injuries during stretches of the final month of the regular season.
"We're just learning, I think," Lopez said. "As long as we come back out and play hard we'll be fine. We took a good step or two defensively (Thursday), stopping them five or six times."
It was 19-7 in favor of Saguaro after one quarter and 32-21 at halftime after a terrific two-minute drill by the Padres' offense led to a late touchdown pass by Eckley. Until then, however, the Sabercats ran right up the gut on Marcos and Rubenzer found Kirk (49 yards on a swing pass) and Nettleton (twice) for touchdowns.
Beware, Division II playoff teams: Eckley's ankle isn't 100 percent but it appears to be in pretty good shape. His second of three touchdown passes on the night (he finished with 296 yards passing and 91 yards rushing and a fourth TD), followed by his two-point conversion run, pulled Marcos within 32-29.
Then the Padres curiously tried an onside kick which bounced around for awhile before Saguaro fell on it. With the ball at midfield, Rubenzer ran 40 yards on the first play before Bradley (8 catches, 111 yards) caught a touchdown pass from Rubenzer to make it 38-29.
Again, Eckley led Marcos back, aided by a pass interference penalty on Saguaro on third-and-20, which turned into third-and-6. Eckley hit Anthony Trujillo for 28 yards and a first down, then found Alex Kleinpeter down the seam for a touchdown to pull Marcos within 38-36 with six minutes left.
"You saw spurts of good, of genius, and we can play defense at times," Lopez said. "I really think we'll be OK."
But after Andrew Rodriguez and Coleman Griffith carried the Padres' defense most of the night, it was Rubenzer, Bradley and Kirk the rest of the way. Kirk's 4-yard score, followed by a two-point conversion catch, clinched the game for Saguaro.
Rubenzer threw for 252 yards, three touchdowns and a pair of 2-point conversions, plus 85 yards rushing and a diving interception on defense to end the game. Kirk had 123 yards rushing, including an 80-yard touchdown and the 49-yard TD catch.
The Chaparral loss, plus close games against Queen Creek, Williams Field and now Marcos, reaffirmed Saguaro's belief that Thursday's win - unlike last year's Week 10 loss to Chaparral and eventual loss in the Div. III quarterfinals - is evidence Saguaro is ready to reclaim its numerous postseason glories from recent past.
"This team is battle-tested and has found ways to win late, so we're prepared," Mohns said.
Saguaro 46, Marcos de Niza 36
Sag 19 13 7 6 -- 46
MDN 7 14 7 8 -- 36
First Down: Sag 14, MDN 21
Rushing: Sag 27-228, MDN 32-143
Passing (Comp.-Att.-TD-INT): Sag 13-20-256-4-0, MDN 22-41-286-3-1
Fumbles: Sag 1-1, MDN 0-0
Penalties: Sag 10-90, MDN 4-45
MDN: Josh Eckley 13 run (Colton Ketter kick)
Sag: Christian Kirk 49 pass from Luke Rubenzer (kick failed)
Sag: J.T. Nettleton 32 pass from Rubenzer (pass failed)
Sag: Nettleton 30 pass from Rubenzer (Tre Tjaarda kick)
MDN: Jacob Hernandez 1 run (Ketterer kick)
Sag: Kirk 14 run (kick failed)
MDN: Logan Pamer 1 pass from Eckley (Ketterer kick)
MDN: Jayquan Herron 15 pass from Eckley (Eckley run)
Sag: Isaiah Bradley 15 pass from Rubenzer (kick blocked)
MDN: Alex Kleinpeter 23 pass from Eckley (Ketterer kick)
Sag: Kirk 4 run (Kirk pass from Rubenzer)
Mark Heller is the East Valley Tribune sports editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (480) 898-6576.