GILBERT — Pusch Ridge Christian was the No. 1 seed going into Saturday night’s Class 3A State championship game against third-seeded Queen Creek Casteel.
But with three times as many players on the opposite sideline and three times as many students in the school, the Lions from Oro Valley felt like a decided underdog.
So the emotions were strong after the 35-28 loss at Campo Verde High, although there were no regrets or second-guessing. The Colts needed a late touchdown drive to decide the game.
“I couldn’t be any more proud, 13-1 and playing in the state championship is nothing to be ashamed of,” Pusch Ridge coach Jerry Harris said, “Did we want to come out on the other end of it? Absolutely. But we will take a lot away from this season.
“These kids are fighters. And our 300 Spartans were taking on the Persian Army, and I would take my 300 Spartans again tomorrow if that’s what it took.”
Pusch Ridge had one last possession, deep in its own end and down seven, but with guys on offense and defense all night against a team so deep it has players who just play on special teams, it was a matter of time before the Lions got worn out. Christian Fetsis’ pass went through Turner Harris on fourth-and-8 at the Lions’ 29 and the fight was over. Casteel ran out the final 2:23 to earn its first state title in the school’s third year of existence.
“We had guys going both ways, we knew we would be getting tired,” Fetsis said. “That second half was tough for us. We had to kind of grind it out, but we left it on the field and we’re happy with the results.”
Pusch Ridge has been in the state tournament for five consecutive years, winning the title in 2015. Casteel played freshman football only in 2015 and reached the posteason in its first varsity season a year ago. The Colts will move up to 5A in 2018.
Junior quarterback Gunnar Cruz, who already has scholarship offers from Arizona State and Northern Arizona — threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns.
“He’s just an amazing kid,” Fetsis said. “He’s the dream quarterback, 6-5, has a cannon arm, so accurate. He played a great game tonight. I’m honored to play against him.”
Cruz led his team to a 28-21 lead on 242 yards passing in the first half, scoring on four of five possessions. Only a fumble on a long completed pass stopped the Colt offense. But in the third quarter, Mitch Maas intercepted Cruz on the second play of the half and later, Pusch Ridge held Casteel on fourth-and-11 and the Lions’ 30.
The Lions then took the ball 70 yards in 15 plays, capped by Tamerat Mcleod’s 1-yard run to tie it up at 28 with 9:42 to play.
Cruz mixed the run and pass on the ensuing 69-yard drive, converting a fourth-and-inches at midfield at one point. Mack Johnson carried the ball on the last four plays of the drive, covering 11 yards and scoring with 4:35 left to make it 35-28.
Pusch Ridge got the ball on its 16 after the kickoff and got a first down before the drive stalled.
Fetsis was held to 20 yards rushing after gaining 1,168 yards on the ground coming in. Casteel held the potent Lion running attack in check. Fetsis averages less than 90 yards passing a game and had 100 by halftime of Saturday night because Pusch Ridge had to find alternate ways to move the ball against the Colt defense.
“I think we were running the ball fairly effectively but we aren’t much of a come-from-behind team,” Harris said. “Obviously you could see fatigue start to take effect late in the second quarter, we got a little juice back in the third quarter and by the middle of the fourth, we were starting to run out of gas again.”
Fetsis was a bit more complimentary of the opponent.
“I think they outplayed us on the run game. We had been a great run team but they were prepared for it,” Fetsis said.