When Cienega was 1-5, just avoiding a losing record, much less making the playoffs, seemed like a distant dream for the team.
Yet after a 29-19 comeback victory at Sahuaro on Friday night, the Bobcats had finished their year on a four-game winning streak and almost snuck into the playoffs at 5-5 overall but the winner of Section II.
But the Bobcats were left out of the state tournament when Sierra Vista Buena edged Sunnyside
24-23 later Friday night. Buena, Cienega and Sahuaro each finished with a 4-1 section record, and Sahuaro won the three-team tiebreaker. Cienega would have won the tiebreaker if Sahuaro was the only other team at 4-1.
The unfortunate break ends Cienega’s 10-year playoff streak, but coach Nemer Hassey said his team’s resilience made it one of his most memorable seasons.
“This has been a crazy year, probably one of my most rewarding years, believe it or not,” Hassey said. “We were in a situation where we could have easily folded and quit, but the kids kept fighting.”
With the season nearly lost, Hassey said neither the coaches nor the players pointed fingers at each other. Instead the Bobcats rallied back to rattle off four straight victories, including the 22-point fourth-quarter comeback against Sahuaro (8-2).
“Pretty much this whole season has been a huge bounce-back,” said senior running back Christian Nash, who had 194 yards on 18 carries and two scores Friday. “Everybody doubted us, nobody thought we could do anything, and now look at us. I think we deserve to go to the playoffs, along with most of the state, and that’s just all I have to say.”
After Sahuaro picked off quarterback Adriell Alvarado and then junior Derik Hall punched in a 2-yard score for his second touchdown of the game, putting Sahuaro up 19-7 midway through in the third quarter, it looked as if another close loss was on the horizon for Cienega.
Yet Nash and the Bobcats’ ground game continued to find holes while the Cienega defense forced two turnovers in the final quarter. The second, a fumble deep in Bobcat territory by Shyyrod Holton with Sahuaro trailing 22-19, ended any chance for a Cougars comeback.
“We lost a little bit of momentum there (in the fourth quarter) and had a couple of critical third downs that we didn’t do our job offensively of getting that first down,” Sahuaro coach Scott Mckee said.
Sahuaro, which entered the game as the No. 8 team in Division II, missed out on a chance to lock up home-field advantage but should still be in comfortable shape for making state.
“We’ll be fine; we’re a good football team,” McKee said. “We’ll make a hell of a run in the state championships here. But it comes down to execution. It comes down to minor details, and those things we missed, and (Cienega) handled them.”
Sahuaro senior Cole Sterns surpassed the 1,000-yard mark on the season after finishing the game with 148 yards and a touchdown, though he had a 48-yard score in the fourth quarter called back because he ran out of bounds before catching the pass.
“This was a tough game, and we knew it was going to be a tough game, but our kids fought, and I’m real proud of them,” Hassey said. “We were down two scores in the fourth quarter, and the guys kept swinging.”