APACHE JUNCTION — The Mogollon Mustangs avenged their only loss of the season and won the 1A State Football Championship, defeating Pima 42-32 in an exciting eight-man classic in November of 2003.
Although there have been many state title games in eight-man football that have been high scoring and close, very few were as electrifying as the 2003 final at Apache Junction High.
“It’s nice to add another gold football,” head coach Ron Tenney said after the game. “The kids played a whale of a game. I have to give credit to their (Pima’s) team. There were no losers tonight. Both teams left the field with everything spent. This is our first time to win a championship on this field. It was just a wild game. We lost 52-14 in September. To make up this is great.”
The fireworks started on the first play of the game and hardly let up the rest of the way. After Pima received the opening kickoff, Mustang A.J. Servis recovered a fumble and raced 40 yards for the first score of the game. Braden Stephens ran for the two-point conversion to put Mogollon up 8-0 only 11 seconds into the game.
Pima came right back and drove 65 yards in three plays. Luis Queseda tied the game at 8 apiece with his 44-yard touchdown run and run for the two point conversion — and the teams had not played one minute.
Mogollon fumbled on the next series, and Pima drove into Mustangs territory but Mogollon’s pass defense got stingy and Pima turned the ball over on downs.
The Mustangs took over at their own 42 and drove 58 yards in seven plays to retake the lead. Andrew Crandell threw to Stephens for a 16-yard touchdown pass to give the Mustangs a 14-8 lead with 2:44 left in the first quarter.
After forcing a Pima punt, the Mustangs drove to inside the Roughriders’ 10 on the next series, but Pima’s Nephi Bryant intercepted a pass and returned it 60 yards to the Mogollon 38, setting up his touchdown pass six plays later. Bryant hit Wes Conners for 11 yards to tie the game. Then Jesse Gojkovich ran for the two point conversion to put Pima up 16-14 with 8:22 to play in the first half.
The Mustangs came right back with an 11-play, 61-yard drive to retake the lead. Stephens capped the drive with a four-yard TD run. Crandell threw to Ryan Meacham for the two point conversion and Mogollon led 22-16 with 3:06 left in the first half.
Pima drove 24 yards in six plays on the next possession, which ended on downs at the Mogollon 32.
But there would be plenty of action left in the first half. Crandell went deep on a pass intended for Meacham and PIma’s Bryant came down with an interception — but Meacham stripped the ball and Scooter Bentley, following the play, recovered to give Mogollon first-and-10 at the Roughriders’ 29. On the next play, Crandell hit Meacham with a touchdown pass. Crandell threw to Stephens for the two point conversion and Mogollon led 30-16 with 19 seconds left in the first half.
Pima came back with a 22-yard kickoff return and a 38-yard completion before Mogollon’s Bentley tipped a pass incomplete and the first half ended.
After forcing Mogollon to punt on the first series of the second half, Pima drove 61 yards in eight plays for another touchdown. Bryant gained two yards on a fourth-and-one to keep the drive alive, then threw a 47-yard TD pass to Matt Bingham. Phil Weech ran for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 30-24 with 7:01 to play in the third quarter.
“They’re (Pima) just so fast. We worked on them all week. (The receivers) still got past me,” said Bentley, who led the Mustang defense with two interceptions and a fumble recovery. “But you just have to pick your head up and don’t let it happen again.”
The Mustangs came back and drove 56 yards in seven plays, but Bryant ended the drive with an interception at the Pima 7. Six plays later, the Roughriders had to punt.
Things got serious as the next three series ended in touchdowns.
Mogollon returned the punt five yards to set up a six-play, 55-yard drive. Crandell ran for a 25-yard gain on the first play of the series. Stephens then ran for gains of 10, eight, 10 and zero yards before capping the drive with a two-yard TD run. A run for the two-point conversion failed, but Mogollon led 36-24 with 10:26 to play in the game.
After a 17-yard kickoff return and a two-yard run, the Roughriders scored on a 71-yard pass from Bryant to Bingham. Gojkovich ran for the two-point conversion to cut the lead to 36-32 with 9:37 left.
Mogollon drove 69 yards in eight plays on the next series for a much-needed two-touchdown cushion. Crandell gained 21 yards to the Pima 33 on a quarterback keeper, and that was aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty on Pima, giving the Mustangs first-and-10 at the Roughriders’ 18. Stephens ran five yards for a TD a few plays later to give the Mustangs a 42-32 lead with 5:47 remaining in the game. The try for the two-point conversion failed.
The Roughriders drove into Mustang territory once again on the next series, but Bentley intercepted a long pass and returned it 22 yards to the Mogollon 44. The Mustangs drove to the Pima 43 and punted.
The Roughriders were only able to complete two passes on the next series, and Tyler Brown had one sack then Eric Garcia sacked Bryant on fourth-and-17 to end the possession.
The Mustangs took over at the Pima 17 and almost scored four plays later. Crandell appeared to score with a sneak over the pile from the 2 yard line, but instead of a touchdown, there was no whistle and Pima stripped the ball and took possession at the 1.
Pima was unable to complete any passes on the final series and the game ended with Bentley’s second interception of the night.
“During practice it rained one day, then the next day there was a wind chill factor of probably 10 below. We had good weather Friday,” Tenney said.
“What didn’t help was that we didn’t have a sustained drive (in the first half). We had to punt on our first drive (of the second half), and they go down and score. But our guys bounced back. It was a testament of heart and soul,” said the coach.
The Mustangs finished the season with 10 wins and one loss, which was a 52-14 loss at Pima on Sept. 12, 2003.
“We wanted revenge,” Bentley said following the win. “That’s been our desire all season. We got it. It tastes good. We’ve had so much support. I thank everybody up on the mountain. They’re our ninth man — the people in the stands. They helped us more than anybody knows.”
The Mustangs have always been a major contender in both Arizona eight-man and 11-man football since the Heber school’s inception in the late 1980s.
The 2003 championship was the Mustangs first outright title in the school’s 15-year history. In 1994, the Mustangs shared the 1A crown with Mayer.
The Mustangs had made the playoffs in football every year since the school’s inception, including all four years Mogollon competed in Conference 2A (and 11-man football) from 1999 to 2002. The Mustangs moved up for a four-year stint in 2A in 1999 and Tenney led the team to a 10-3 record and as runner-up to powerhouse Phoenix Christian.
Mogollon won its most recent state title in 2014 under head coach Tim Slade. It was also the last time the Mustangs advanced to a state championship game. Mogollon and Bagdad squared off for the Division 6 (1A) title in 2013 and ’14. The Sultans won 44-20 in 2013 and the Mustangs won 14-8 in the second-lowest scoring championship in history for the school’s fourth 1A title in 2014.
Slade’s 10-0-1 Mustangs tied 9-1-1 Mayer, 20-20, in the third shared eight-man football championship in a six-year span in 1994.
Rocky Nelson led the 1995 Mustangs (9-1) to the runner-up trophy, and Tenney led a 9-2 Mogollon team to the runner-up spot in 1997. The Mustangs won two 1A titles under Tenney (2003 and 2008), including a 66-34 win over Pima in ’08, during a run of 11 title game appearances in 21 years with the three coaches.