Sunday, December 7, 2003

Devils' delight

Photos by Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star
Counting on Cota: Sunnyside quarterback Jaime Cota tries to shake free from Jonathan Murillo of Glendale Cactus in the second quarter of the Class 4A state championship game at Sun Devil Stadium.


Satisfaction: Members of the Sunnyside football team hold aloft their trophy.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star
Gaining strength: Sunnyside's George Garza collects his thoughts before the start of the second half against Glendale Cactus.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star
Heap of trouble: Glendale Cactus running back Nigel Ricks finds himself surrounded by Blue Devils in the first quarter of Saturday's Class 4A state championship game at Sun Devil Stadium.

Sunnyside concludes a magical season with state championship

By Brian J. Pedersen

TEMPE - What is the magic formula for the success of the Sunnyside High School football team?

With two state titles in three years to draw from, apparently the Blue Devils' secret is to lose early and win late.

Sunnyside beat Glendale Cactus 21-13 Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium for the Class 4A state championship. It capped a season in which the Blue Devils lost their first two games - and looked bad in doing so - but when it counted at the end, there was no better team.

"I schedule those teams on purpose so we can find out what our weaknesses are," said Sunnyside coach Richard Sanchez, whose 2001 state championship squad also was beaten handily in its season opener. "They exposed (our weaknesses), so we just had to go back and work on them."

Sunnyside (12-2) won its 12th straight game thanks to a blend of timely plays on offense, a bend-but-don't-break defense, and just the right amount of luck.

"They were programmed all week that this was going to be a war," Sanchez said.

Whereas Sunnyside was playing in the 4A final for the third time in four years, Cactus (12-2) was making its first state final appearance since 1987.

But the Cobras in no way looked awed by the big-game, big-stadium atmosphere. They opened with a 13-play, 78-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead on quarterback Bubba Bradley's 4-yard run.

Sunnyside drove to the Cactus 23 on its first drive, but turned the ball over on downs. The Cobras went right back down the field with a 15-play drive to go up 10-0 on Bradley's 32-yard field goal with 10:28 left in the first half.

The Blue Devils again drove deep into Cactus territory, but their effort ended when Mike Villalobos' halfback pass was intercepted just short of the end zone by Nick Childs.

It took until 1:54 remained in the first half, the longest Sunnyside had gone into a game this season without scoring, for the Blue Devils to get on the board.

That came on a 17-yard pass from Jaime Cota to Villalobos, a perfectly floated ball over two Cobra defenders, to make it 10-7.

Cota, who finished with 158 yards on 12-of-18 passing, carried Sunnyside early while junior tailback Xavier Smith struggled to find his rhythm.

"(Cota) did a hell of a job," Cactus coach Larry Fetkenhier said.

It was Smith, though, who put the Devils ahead for good when he broke off a 32-yard run on the Devils' first possession of the third quarter. It gave Sunnyside a 14-10 lead.

And Smith's 50-yard run in the final minutes set up another score to seal the victory.

"I knew my line would step up for me," said Smith, who finished with 120 yards for his 11th straight 100-yard game. "They did their jobs. I did my job. I didn't care about the yards."

Said offensive coordinator Glenn Posey: "We knew he'd make the plays."

Sunnyside's defense toughened after that, stuffing the Cobras in the red zone on their next two possessions. The second of those drives resulted in a 22-yard field goal by Bradley to narrow the gap to 14-13 with 5:29 left.

After Smith's 1-yard TD run with 1:28 left made it 21-13, Cactus dinked and dunked its way down the field without any time--outs, arriving at the Sunnyside's 39 with 20 seconds left.

Bradley then found a wide-open Kevin Marin in the end zone for an apparent score with 11 seconds to go, but the TD was waived off after it was determined that Bradley had released his pass beyond the line of scrimmage.

"I was standing over here and I said, 'Oh (no), they let somebody behind them,' " Sanchez said afterward. "We haven't had many breaks this year."

Alex Valencia then clinched the game with a sack of Bradley near midfield as time expired.

As fate would have it, a more experienced and talented Sunnyside team fell short of the title last year, losing to eventual champion Scottsdale Chaparral in the semifinals.

Gone were half the starters from that 12-1 team, many of whom were on hand Saturday to lend their support.

"They said to us, 'you guys have got to redeem us,' " senior defensive end Ruben Leyva said. "This feels so good."