The clock hit zero, ending Salpointe Catholic’s season, and longtime Lancers coach Dennis Bene ushered his entire roster through the handshake line, gave a quick postgame speech and conducted a few interviews. He then guided the group to the Arizona Stadium sideline, where thousands of Salpointe fans cheered as the players waved and lifted the runner-up trophy.
Most of the Lancers’ players were sullen, crying. Bene pulled everyone together as they headed toward the locker room for the last time this season. Most of them hugged.
Bene, win or lose, has wanted this team to relish the moment.
The fourth-seeded Lancers fell 28-7 to second-seeded Scottsdale Saguaro in Saturday’s Class 4A state championship. Salpointe’s accomplishments in a 12-2 season came because of the team’s chemistry, unselfishness and the hard work.
“It was a great year,” Bene said. “I’m really proud of our kids and they played their hearts out.”
The Lancers shut out a school-record five opponents this season, and had hope they could turn Saturday’s game into a battle of defense and rushing. Salpointe’s two best offensive players, sophomore Bijan Robinson and junior Mario Padilla, are running backs.
Both Robinson and Padilla flashed at times, but flash wasn’t enough.
Saguaro broke a scoreless tie in the second quarter, when Max Massingale completed a 35-yard touchdown pass to receiver Logan Pettijohn. The 6-foot-3-inch senior was alone when he caught the ball.
Massingale picked apart Salpointe’s defense the rest of the way. He scored a rushing touchdown on the next possession. The quarterback was at his best late in the third quarter, after Saguaro intercepted a running-back pass attempt by Padilla. Massingale completed a pass to Zach Wilson for 38 yards, then to Pettijohn for 10, Wilson for 18 and Pettijohn again for an 11-yard score.
Massingale completed 13 of 18 passes for 231 yards and two touchdowns, and added 41 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the ground. His pass to Pettijohn gave the Sabercats a 21-0 lead.
Padilla bounced back with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with 35 seconds left in the third.
The return “definitely put some momentum back on our side,” said Salpointe offensive lineman Matteo Mele, who will play at the University of Washington next fall. “Our heads were starting to fall right before that happened. Once it happened, anything was possible, we just couldn’t get it done.”
Bene called Padilla “an unbelievable competitor.” The do-it-all back finished with 216 all-purpose yards and punted five times.
Robinson, meanwhile, was limited for most of the game. He had zero rushing yards in the first quarter, and just 44 — on 10 carries — at halftime. Robinson gained 23 more yards in the third quarter.
Robinson finally busted a big run in the fourth quarter, a 41-yard burst that moved Salpointe to Saguaro’s 10. Robinson finished the game with 159 rushing yards on 24 carries, giving him 2,018 rushing yards for the season.
“We had that run and we thought we were about to cruise down,” Robinson said.
On the next play, Salpointe lined up in the Wildcat formation and an errant snap went through Padilla’s hands. Salpointe lost 14 yards and all its momentum, failing to score on the possession which ended with an interception thrown by Lancers quarterback Rodrigo Nieto.
“That was the story of the night,” Mele said. “We had momentum and then we’d lose it. But we fought. No one gave up the whole game.”
Massingale iced the game with a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:25 remaining. The Sabercats finished the season 12-2.
“You know, it was tough because I love this team,” Robinson said. “I put my heart out for this team and they make me better, they make me work harder. I’m still a young player and there were a lot of older players that just helped me out through the ride to get here.”
Added Bene: “I’m super proud of our kids. It’s tough as heck to get to this game and I just couldn’t be more proud.”