In a game that started out so hopeful, heartbreak ensued as the No. 1-seeded Cienega Bobcats were defeated 37-34 in a come-from-behind victory by the No. 4 seed Notre Dame Prep Saints on Friday night in the 5A football semifinals.
Cienega finishes the season with a 12-1 record for the second consecutive season and will have to replace notable stars such as senior quarterback Jamarye Joiner and senior middle linebacker Nick Amico.
“Last year was just phenomenal and was a group we thought was special,” Cienega head coach Patrick Nugent said. “This group we didn’t really think much because we were young and Jamarye just took them under his wing, and (junior wide receiver) Terrell Hayward and they accomplished a lot with some young players playing serious minutes.”
Joiner, a University of Arizona commit, in particular will be missed. His two years under center at Cienega led to 24 wins and back-to-back trips to the 5A semifinals.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever had, if not the best,” Nugent said. “He’s a competitor and we tried to ride him all the way through. The numbers and what he’s accomplished as a high school kid in Tucson is just unbelievable.”
After Notre Dame senior running back Cole Fisher added his third rushing touchdown of the night to put the Saints up 37-34 with 3:44 left to play, the Bobcats had a chance to tie or win the game on their ensuing drive.
However, Joiner saw his pass on fourth-and-13 intercepted with 1:53 left to play and Notre Dame took over on its 43-yard line.
The Saints gained one first down and then ran out the clock to secure the comeback victory behind 113 rushing yards and three second half touchdowns from Fisher.
“We couldn’t stop the run,” Nugent said. “They lined up in the same formation and just beat us up. We lost three defensive lineman tonight early in the game and it pounded us.”
Despite the final result, Cienega came out of the gate rearing to go during Friday night’s matchup with Notre Dame Prep and showcased its dominant offense early on.
Playing at a neutral field at Marana Mountain View, Notre Dame opened the game with possession and was quickly stifled by the physical Cienega defense.
The Bobcats took over on the 50 yard line and didn’t take long to put the first score on the board behind a 30-yard throw and catch from senior quarterback Jamarye Joiner to junior wide receiver Terrell Hayward.
Joiner scrambled on the play and tossed the touchdown to Hayward with 7:54 left in the opening quarter for the 7-0 lead.
Notre Dame (13-0) drove down into Bobcat territory on its next possession and failed to convert on a fourth down conversion. Add in an intentional grounding penalty and Cienega took over on its 45 yard line.
Fast forward a handful of plays and Joiner ran in the quarterback keeper with 1:53 left in the first quarter to put the Bobcats up 14-0.
At that point, it looked as if Cienega was ready to run away with this one on the way to the state championship on Dec. 2.
However, Notre Dame wasn’t ready to let that happen.
The Saints put their first touchdown on the board with 10:01 left in the second quarter on a 21-yard fade from senior quarterback Kylan Weisser to senior wide receiver Blake Storey.
Storey’s 21-yard touchdown cut the Bobcat lead to 14-7 and put the Saints right back in the game.
On the ensuing kickoff, Cienega attempted a reverse and fumbled on the trick play just yards away from its own end zone. Notre Dame fell on the fumble in the end zone with 9:51 left in first half to even up play at 14-14.
From that point on, it was the Terrell Hayward show.
Hayward added two more touchdowns over the final 9:51 of play to give the Bobcats a 27-17 lead over Notre Dame going into halftime.
Hayward scored his second touchdown of the half on a 15-yard rush with 4:16 left and his third on an 88-yard kickoff return for a score with 18.8 seconds left in the half.
The junior wide receiver ended the game with 80 receiving yards, 18 rushing yards and three total touchdowns, with all of them coming in the first half.
“If (Hayward) was three inches taller, everyone in the nation would be recruiting him … and Terrell Hayward is just a special young man and an unbelievable competitor.” Nugent said.
Whereas the first half was all Cienega, the second half was very much the opposite, with Notre Dame scoring 20 points in the half to complete the comeback.
Notre Dame cranked up the pressure in the second half, consistently putting Joiner in tough spots and making the star quarterback make numerous throws on the run outside the pocket.
Despite all that, Cienega held a 34-30 lead with 8:08 remaining after Joiner found senior tight end Steven Harshman for a 12-yard touchdown.
It just didn’t end as Nugent and the Bobcats would’ve liked. Going forward, the future is bright for Cienega football with guys like Hayward and junior running back Thomas Webb Jr. returning next season.
“We’ve got a great future,” Nugent said. “Cienega football is loaded and it’s not going anywhere. Whether Jamarye Joiner leaves or whoever leaves, (our roster) is deep down and we’ve got some great players.”