Salpointe Catholic can finally call itself a champion and, quite possibly, the best team in Southern Arizona history.
The top-seeded Lancers fell behind early Friday night but answered in a huge way to beat Scottsdale Chaparral 46-20 at Arizona Stadium for the Division II state title in front of about 10,000 Salpointe faithful.
The victory marked the first state title in program history; the Lancers had lost their previous two appearances in state title games.
“I’m an alum, I’m a former player, and it means everything that we have the championship trophy at Salpointe now,” coach Dennis Bene said. “I’m just so, so thankful the trophy is finally at Salpointe.”
The win capped a perfect 14-0 season for the Lancers and made them the ninth local large-school team in the last 50 years to go undefeated.
But this team has a case to be the best of them all. Salpointe outscored its opponents 697-101 this season; the team scored 40 or more points in every game.
After falling behind 6-0 early against the third-seeded Firebirds, who have won three state championships since 2009, Salpointe scored 26 straight points to take a commanding 20-point lead at halftime.
“Our guys’ demeanor never went down,” said senior quarterback Andrew Cota, who was 12 of 19 for 266 yards and four touchdowns. “Our guys came together as a unit. We came together as a family, and this was a whole team win right now. I’m just so proud for our team; I don’t even know how to describe it.”
Salpointe may have secured the win with a huge goal-line stand late in the second quarter.
Senior captain Jay Williams had a snap go over his head and into the end zone on the punt. He picked up the ball and ran it past the goal line but was stopped on the Salpointe 1, giving Chaparral a chance to score an easy touchdown.
Not so fast.
The Lancers’ stellar defense didn’t surrender a yard for three straight plays, then stopped the Firebirds on fourth down. Senior safety Santiago Nieto broke up a would-be touchdown on third down, and the defense swarmed a run up the middle on fourth down.
“It was a huge momentum shift, and that was a turning point in the game that proved we were going to win,” said Nieto, who later pulled in an interception.
Three plays after that stop, Cota connected with star receiver — and UA commit — Cameron Denson for a 98-yard touchdown. The score gave Salpointe a 26-6 edge.
Denson returned a kickoff for an 84-yard score early in the third quarter.
“It’s real awesome. We made history; its just a tremendous feeling right now,” said Denson, who caught four passes for 148 yards and accounted for three touchdowns. “I’m speechless. It’s always what I wanted. I couldn’t have wished for more, but this is a perfect way to go out. We went undefeated, we won a state championship, I’m just happy for my team.”
The early touchdown run by Chaparral senior Tyler Whiley marked the first deficit for the Lancers this season. It was also the first and only first-quarter touchdown surrendered all season by Salpointe.
“Our kids responded and showed a lot of character,” Bene said. “We worked so hard, this is a special group. They just wouldn’t be denied; I know that sounds cliché, but they’ve worked their tail off, and they had that confidence, that belief you need to be a champion.
“I just can’t say enough about the kids, they were tremendous tonight.”