Jeffry Scott / Arizona Daily Star

X-tra tough to take down: Sunnyside running back Xavier Smith tries to break free from a group of Chaparral tacklers.

Sunnyside beats Chaparral 

Cota's key passes help Blue Devils raise record to 2-0

By Brian J. Pedersen 

Jaime Cota missed more throws than he made Friday night, except when it mattered most. 

Cota was 7 for 7 for 115 yards on third down for Sunnyside, leading the defending Class 4A state champion Blue Devils to a 17-7 win over Scottsdale Chaparral in the latest classic in the teams' recent series. 

"I have to be a leader on the team," said Cota, a senior who finished 11 of 24 for 220 yards and a late game-clinching touchdown pass. "I knew I just have to come out and keep this team on top." 

A battle of the only two teams to win the Class 4A state title this millennium was an even blend of state final excitement and early-season sloppiness, but in the end 2001 and 2003 champ Sunnyside (2-0) won out thanks to its heavy experience advantage over the Firebirds (1-1), who won it all in 2000 and 2002. 

Nowhere was this experience factor more crucial than under center. While Cota made big play after big play all night, Chaparral junior Nick Neuenfeldt did not complete a pass until the final 1:16 of the game. He finished 3 of 12 for 47 yards, all on the final drive that ended with a deflected pass at the Sunnyside goal line as time expired. 

"He's been there before, he's been under pressure and he makes big plays," Sunnyside coach Richard Sanchez said of Cota. 

Sunnyside could have broken the game open in the first half but failed to capitalize on some key chances. Up 10-0 after Xavier Smith scored on a 26-yard touchdown run, the Blue Devils got the ball back at Chaparral's 24 with 1:13 to go before halftime when Smith recovered a fumble. 

Cota got his team down to the Firebirds' 2 with a 22-yard pass to George Garza (three catches, 59 yards) with 34 seconds left. But then three straight run plays were stuffed by the Chaparral front line led by 6-foot-2-inch, 300-pound senior nose tackle Ekom Udofia, the reason coaches from both the UA and USC were on hand. 

Chaparral carried that momentum into the second half, churning up tons of yardage on the ground with a half-opening 12-play, 80-yard drive capped by a 1-yard TD run from Spencer Rothery. Rothery had 118 of the Firebirds' 186 rushing yards. 

Sunnyside missed a 41-yard field goal on the final play of the third quarter, giving Chaparral a chance to tie or take the lead. The Firebirds' drive stalled at the Blue Devil 40 and came up empty when Matt Boatman's 57-yard field goal attempt into a 15-mile-per-hour crosswind sailed right. 

The only third-down pass from Cota that didn't go for a first down was his last, with under four minutes left in the game and Sunnyside up 10-7. The Devils failed to convert a fake punt on the next play at the Chaparral 39, but they got the ball back less than two minutes later after the Firebirds went nowhere thanks to its lack of a pass game. 

The Devils then put the game away in two plays, a 20-yard run by Smith and Cota's 31-yard TD throw to Wally Altamirano with 2:11 left to make it 17-7. 

"They beat our DBs two or three times and that killed us," Chaparral coach Ron Estabrook said. "We had so many third-down conversions (against us). I think we stop those, we have a chance to win the game." 

Sanchez said he was happy to get the win and the "55 power points" that come with it, but otherwise it was a step back from last week's 38-14 win at Salpointe Catholic. 

"Not to take anything away from (Chaparral), but we didn't improve tonight," Sanchez said. "They improved immensely from last week, and that was evident. We're going to go (back) to work." 

Sunnyside won for the 52nd time in its last 57 games since 2000. Three of those losses have come to Chaparral, including a 41-14 defeat last September in Scottsdale, which was avenged 16-7 by the Devils in the 4A semifinals in November.