PHOENIX — Blue Ridge did not play its best in a 20-14 win over Fountain Hills in the 3A state quarterfinals a week earlier. The top-ranked and second-seeded Yellow Jackets hurt themselves by turning the ball three times, including twice deep in Falcons’ territory. So they were looking to improve against third-seeded Florence in the semifinals.
Blue Ridge beat the Gophers 53-7 to reach the state championship game a year ago. But there were reasons to believe the rematch would be tighter.
Florence returned some key players from last year’s 8-5 squad and at 11-1, the Gophers were a confident bunch. A 35-21 victory over Round Valley in the quarterfinals was a confidence boost. Round Valley was the only team that had beaten the Gophers.
But this year’s semifinal game looked a lot like last year’s as the Jackets’ routed the Gophers 49-7.
Blue Ridge (12-0) rolled up 460 yards of total offense and shut down a Florence offense that was averaging 41.7 points a game and had scored at least 49 points in seven of its previous 12 games and at least 35 in all but two games. The Gophers’ previous low output came in a 21-14 win at Fountain Hills on September 17.
But the Yellow Jackets demonstrated just how insignificant all of that was. Florence hadn’t faced a team like this since Blue Ridge whipped the Gophers a year ago.
While the Blue Ridge offense was running through the Florence defense, the Jackets’ defense was frustrating the Gophers.
Blue Ridge limited the Gophers to 172 yards of total offense. They only managed 106 until the final five minutes.
And they shot themselves in the foot by committing five turnovers. The Gophers (11-2) lost all three of their fumbles and Danny Groebner and Andrew Montoya intercepted Jace Hulsey passes. Hulsey, making his first appearance since missing three games with an injury, completed just 6 of 19 passes for 96 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions.
The Jackets had a great week of practice after the disappointing performance in the quarterfinals.
“Oh yeah, it was one of our best weeks of practice ever,” said Nick Johnson. “We were all focused this week. We just didn’t come out ready to play (last week). We just thought it was gonna be a cakewalk but now we know. Yep we learned right there.”
Johnson completed all six of his pass attempts for 203 yards and a 49-yard touchdown to Ethan Jackson with 7:18 to play in the first half to put the Yellow Jackets ahead 21-0 at intermission. Johnson also ran three times for 15 yards, including a 1-yard score to make it 28-0 with 4:51 left in the third quarter.
Jordan Morgan ran 13 times for 65 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His 14-yard run with 2:28 remaining in the third quarter made it 35-0 and his 7-yard run six seconds into the fourth quarter capped the Yellow Jackets scoring and gave Blue Ridge a 49-0 lead.
Morgan and Johnson continued to split snaps at quarterback. Morgan echoed Johnson’s comments on the week of practice leading up to the semifinal showdown.
“We knew that Fountain Hills was a good team,” Morgan said. “We just came out a little flat against them. And we learned from that experience and all week during practice it was up tempo. Everyone was into it and we just knew this could be our last game as seniors so we had to come out and take care of business. I think you could compare (the week of practice) it to Show Low week or even more. We knew we had everything down on the line and we just had to come through.”
The Jackets ran 52 times for 224 yards.
Nick Williams had 119 yards from scrimmage, catching four passes for 75 yards and rushing four times for 44 yards and a 20-yard touchdown to open the scoring with 4:24 to play in the first quarter.
Ricky Torres caught one pass for 77 yards for Blue Ridge. Chayse Russell ran 16 times for 65 yards and a 1-yard second-quarter touchdown to put Blue Ridge up 14-0.
Russell said the Jackets were prepared for a big challenge against Florence.
“We knew it was going to be harder (than last week) and we just came out and rose to the occasion, worked as a team and won,” he said.
Blue Ridge’s other touchdown came on Montoya’s 25-yard interception return, which gave the Jackets a 42-0 lead with 2:17 to play in the third quarter.
Jackets’ linebacker and running back Alex Stebbins said his team was ready for a challenge against the Gophers.
“They are fast and they’re just athletic,” the senior said. “They knew where to go. They’re just a great team.”
He said the intense practices paid off.
“We stepped it up in practice,” Stebbins said. “We just got focused. We listened to our coaches and we came out victorious because of that. It was just intensity at practice, focus at practice, knowing your assignments, knowing your blocks, doing everything good.”
Hulsey connected with Deshaun Davis on a 75-yard touchdown pass with 4:29 remaining as the Gophers avoided the shutout. But it came against Blue Ridge’s defensive reserves. The Gophers’ only score in a 53-7 blowout against the Jackets in last year’s semifinal also came late in the game against the reserves.
The only time Florence entered Blue Ridge territory in the first half was following a 15-yard unnecessary roughness call that got them to the Jackets’ 39. Florence began a third-quarter possession at the Jackets’ 47 after a 27-yard kick return by Nick Brown but went 3-and-out.
Those were the only times the Gophers entered Blue Ridge territory until their final three possessions against the Blue Ridge reserves.
The Gophers got the ball back one play after their long touchdown pass at the Blue Ridge 36 on a fumbled snap by the Jackets. But they only reached the 32 before Blue Ridge’s Anthony Kinney recovered a fumble on second down. Two plays later the Jackets gave it back at their own 47 on another fumbled snap. But the Gophers could get no closer than the Blue Ridge 44 before throwing an incomplete pass on fourth down as time expired.
Florence senior Kyle Washington, a Division I recruit, was injured in the first half and didn’t return.