Friday night was one of the most anticipated football games of the year, and the Thatcher Eagles had to travel all the way across town to take on the Safford Bulldogs.
Oldtimers remember the annual Thanksgiv-ing Day game between the two schools that ended in the late ‘50s. The teams played for a curved axe embedded in a log with the game scores in bronze dangling from the palm of the handle in bronze. That traveling trophy disappeared long ago, but the cross-valley rivalry has not. Now, the two schools play for bragging rights and pride.
Before the game, head coach Dave Jefferies spoke about the match-up. “I’m new to this rivalry. It’s fun and exciting. It reminds me of the rivalries when I was in high school, when I was playing. That’s how these kids are treating it,” Jefferies said. “On film, Safford looks real good. They’ve got some good size and have some athletic kids.”
Safford head coach John Alba for Safford was hopeful his team would play a great game. “Tonight’s game is a big rivalry game. We’ve been preaching all week, but we also did a lot of back to the basic stuff,” Alba said. “Thatcher’s going to be ready to go. They’re going to do some great things, so hopefully, we can pick it up and do the right thing, like our basic stuff, and make a great game of it. Hopefully we get a win out of it.”
The Safford Bulldogs players came out of the locker room running through the line of the band and crashed through the traditional butcher paper Bulldogs banner. The stands on both sides of the field were at capacity, with some fans on the oval track on Thatcher’s side of the field.
The Thatcher High marching band had the honor of playing the national anthem for everyone who played and attended the game.
Safford won the toss and received the opening kickoff. Its first offensive series was a three and out.
Thatcher’s first series was met with an early fumble on the 20-yard line that the Bulldogs recovered.
Safford’s offense took over and stalled again and gave the ball back to Thatcher. The Eagles took full advantage. First, quarterback Presely Motes tossed a 40-yard pass for a completion. Then, with 3:42 left in the first quarter, Garret Kartchner did what he does best and ran up middle of the Bulldogs’ defense for the touchdown from 15 yards out. Motes capped the series off with a good extra point to make the score 7-0 Eagles.
On Safford’s next offensive series, it got close enough to the end zone to try a 47- yard field goal by Tyler Polanco that went wide.
At that point in the game, Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennet, who was present, got on the public address system and shouted, “Go, Bulldogs!”
Thatcher drove the ball down the field again, but the Bulldog’s defense held it at the 15-yard line. On fourth down, Motes kicked a 15-yard field goal to extend the Eagles’ lead 10-0 with 8:57 showing on the scoreboard clock.
On Safford’s next offensive series, it fumbled the ball and Thatcher recovered. The opportunistic Eagles quickly scored again from 20 yards out with a pass from Motes to Jacob Drage. The Bulldogs defender on the play, Andrew Ornelas, actually had a two-handed tip on the ball that squeaked through and into Drage’s waiting hands for the touchdown. Motes chipped in the extra point to send the Eagles up by the score of 17-0.
The Safford Bulldogs did not lay down. The offense composed itself and marched down the field. With a spectacular play on fourth and two yards to get the first down, Chris Garrobo broke through the Thatcher defensive line for 15 yards. That play set up the touchdown for Tyler Shurtz with 2:37 to go in the first half. Palonco nailed the extra point to close the gap 17-7, still in favor of the Eagles.
The Safford fans went wild with cheers, but Thatcher’s Kartchner brought out a bucket of water and dowsed those cheers with 2:33 on the clock. Kartchner took the kick-off from the Bulldogs and screamed up the field for a 97-yard return for the touchdown. Motes again chipped in the extra point to put Thatcher up by the score of 24-7.
Again, the Bulldogs’ offense regained their composure and raced up the field to get in position for a 35-yard field goal by Palonco with :32 left on the clock. He missed his second long field goal of the first half.
The Safford High School marching band entertained the packed stadium of fans while the two teams went to the locker room to rest and plan for the second half of the game. The band was scheduled to compete the next day at Marcos de Niza high school with marching bands from across the state.
Thatcher came out of the locker room red hot and scored on its first series of the third quarter. Kartchner had a three yard run up the middle of the Safford defense again to make the score 30-7 after a blocked extra point by Motes.
Safford was not yet ready to throw in towel and marched back up the field to get into scoring position again. This time, Thatcher spoiled it with a pass interception in the end zone for the touch back and took possession of the ball.
It was Thatcher’s turn to again take advantage of the Safford turnover. The Eagles passed and ran up the field and capped off the scoring drive with 2:03 to go in the third quarter. It was Motes again with a beautiful pass to Mitch Fullenwider for 25 yards and the touchdown. Motes made the extra point to run the score for the Eagles up to 37 points to the Bulldogs’ 7 points.
In the fourth quarter, Thatcher continued its offensive dominance. This time, it was cousin Heath Motes who got the call from cousin Presley Motes in the air for 28 yards and the touchdown. Motes nocked in another extra point to make it Eagles 44, Bulldogs 7.
That score prompted the Safford side of the stands of fans to begin to empty out of the stadium and call it a Friday night.
The Thatcher Eagles had more score up their sleeve, and with 4:21 to go in the game Motes tossed a six-yard pass to Sam Bagnall for a circus leap touchdown catch. Motes again nailed the extra point to make the final score Thatcher 51, Safford 7.
After the game, Thatcher head coach Jefferies admitted he was surprised by the final score.
“I did not expect the score to be that lopsided because Safford is a good football team. They hit hard; they’ve got big play potential,” he said. “I’m just proud of our boys. They played hard. They fought hard. For our seniors, it was their last chance to play Safford. It was a great game for us.”