The football season hasn’t truly begun until Saguaro is embroiled in controversy, right? Even with polarizing former coach John Sanders now at Arizona State, the Sabercats found themselves in the spotlight again Friday night.
By all accounts, their first half against Tempe was contentious, as penalty flags were a common sight and injuries were, too. Things became quite heated late in the second quarter, when the third major injury to a Buffaloes player led to a Tempe coach’s ejection and the half to be called with 1:33 remaining on the clock. Instead of returning to the field for the third quarter trailing 31-0, the Buffaloes boarded their buses and went home, choosing a forfeit because their coaches believed Saguaro was intentionally trying to hurt their players.
Tempe principal Mark Yslas fanned the flames by sending out a letter to those associated with the school on Saturday, in which he said Saguaro was trying to injure the Tempe players on purpose and that “forfeiting last night’s game was not about getting beat on the scoreboard and being physically dominated, it was about recognizing that the opponent, in this case Saguaro High School, was not going to pursue victory with honor and they did not deserve to be on the same field with an honorable team like Tempe High.”
Saguaro coach Jason Mohns said after the game that "We're not out here trying to hurt anybody and I hope that's not the message that Tempe left with.” The Buffaloes clearly think differently and sent the game tape to the Arizona Interscholastic Association.
David Rubenzer, the father of Saguaro quarterback Luke Rubenzer, passed along the game tape and I watched it this afternoon.
• On the opening kickoff, a Saguaro player took a cheap shot on a Tempe player who was standing out of bounds. The Saguaro player then celebrated the hit and a teammate taunted the Buffalo player. This was one of the two egregious plays I saw on the tape, and it set an ominous tone. There’s no excuse for the Saguaro player’s actions and it’s the type of display which has made so many teams angry with the Sabercats in the past.
• I thought two of the personal foul calls against Saguaro were iffy and two were deserved. While the Sabercats may have been guilty of being overaggressive, all four penalties seemed to be within the flow of the game.
• I completely understand why the Tempe coaches were upset when the first half was called. On the final play of the game, a punt by the Buffaloes, a Saguaro player deliberately took out a defenseless Tempe defender behind the line of scrimmage several moments after the punt had been booted. The player was ejected and it was well-deserved.
So, where do we stand? Well, the claim by Yslas that Saguaro had nine personal foul penalties and three unsportsmanlike penalties is almost certainly overblown. I counted six personal foul penalties, and even allowing for penalty flags outside the camera’s view, 12 seems high.
That being said, it’s easy to see why Tempe was upset. Two of the personal fouls were extreme cheap shots and have no place in the game. Add that to multiple injuries and a lopsided score, and emotions were certainly hot. However, the game did not look so out of hand that the second half couldn’t have been played. If Tempe put in its second string and waved the white flag, Saguaro would have gotten the message and backed off. It’s hard to blame the Sabercats for keeping up the intensity in the first half since Tempe came in 2-0 while Saguaro was only 1-1. The Sabercats wanted to send a message, but may have been a tad over-the-top in doing so.
As for potential ramifications, don’t expect Saguaro to receive any significant punishment from the AIA. When a player is ejected by an official, the AIA has always refused to hear an appeal because it is a judgment call. The same is true in reverse. If these penalties were called, the officials saw the plays and made a judgment call whether or not to eject the player, so the AIA won’t be able to change that.
Mohns told the Tribune after Friday's game that any cheap shots he sees from his players on film will be met with discipline, so it is possible he doles out his own punishment based on the actions I witnessed on the first and last plays of the game.
For years, Saguaro has been the Arizona high school version of the University of Miami. Lots of penalties, lots of swagger, and ultimately, lots of wins. However, this incident may lead to changes because Mohns cares more about the perception of the program than Sanders ever did.
I’m not trying to cast too much blame on the Sabercats, because outside of the two indefensible hits, Saguaro didn’t seem to be doing anything out of the ordinary. With adrenaline and tempers, kids do stupid things in games, but does that mean the whole team was trying to hurt Tempe’s players? Likely not. Tempe isn’t blameless, as having a coach run on the field and then packing up the team at halftime might not go over well with the AIA.
It’s an unfortunate situation all the way around, and one in which both sides can do plenty of second-guessing. Hopefully it becomes a learning moment for everyone and not the start of more bad blood.