The football rivalry between Thatcher and Safford high schools has always been a big deal in the Gila Valley, but last Friday night the rest of the Arizona got a chance to see the rivalry firsthand as the matchup was the “AZpreps365 Game of the Week”. Thatcher won this year's version of the annual match-up, 27-14.

COVID-19 protocols required Safford High School to keep attendance Friday night to 50% capacity. The lack of numbers in the seats didn’t dampen the game’s excitement, nor the hype. The TV broadcast atmosphere, with a pre-game program, cameras, producers and directors, even TV/Media Timeouts, more than made up for the diminished crowd.

Thatcher won the coin toss and deferred, electing to kick off to the Bulldogs. The out-of-bounds kick meant Safford would start at their own 35-yard line. Three runs by senior running back Eduardo Ogaz advanced Safford to the mid-field mark. The promising first drive was hampered by three back-to-back false starts and the Bulldogs found themselves back where they had started at the 35-yard line. Facing second down and 21 yards to go, senior CJ Scrivner managed to pick up 14 yards. Ogaz added two more yards on third down leaving it at 4th down and two; Safford decided to punt.

Both teams found the going tough and swapped punts after a pair of three and outs.

The Eagles put together a seven play, 23-yard drive that saw the first quarter come to an end, 0-0.

On the first play of the second quarter Thatcher had a fourth and one at the Safford 49-yard line. The Eagles lined up to go for the first down, one yard away, but a false start moved the ball back five yards. With it now 4th and six Thatcher punted the ball back to the Bulldogs.

Starting at their own 29 yard-line, the Bulldogs moved the ball to the Eagle’s 46 yard-line, but then they started moving backwards with a 15-yard penalty.  They then quickly put the ball on the ground.

Given the ball on the Safford 47-yard line, Thatcher put together a nine-play scoring drive. A seven-yard Brandon Napier to Nicholas Puzas pass connection, followed by a five-yard Napier run and a 14-yard run by Mark Wren. Mason Underwood added 11 and Wren got the ball to the one-yard line from where Michael McBride was able to light up the scoreboard for the first time of the night, 7-0 with successful PAT by McKay Griffin.

Safford would respond quickly after the kick-off. Scrivner ripped off 37 yards, Ogaz added 31 yards with Christian Smith punching the ball in from five yards out. With the Noah Bevens' PAT the game was knotted at 7-7 where it would remain at halftime.

Thatcher opened the second half with at 62-yard scoring drive, capped off with 30-yard run by Napier to pay dirt, with failed PAT, the Eagles on top, 13-7.

On the ensuing kickoff, the short kick was touched by a Bulldog and the “live ball” was recovered by Thatcher at the Safford 37-yard line. Wren gained 7-yards, and 15-yard penalty set the Eagles up at the 15, Wren carried again this to the two-yard line where Napier was able to up the margin to 20-7 with the successful Griffin PAT.

As the third period wound down Safford came up back with an answering 14 play, 67-yard scoring drive. Ogaz moved the score closer with a 31-yard fun to the end zone to cut the score to 20-14, with the Nathan Macario PAT.

With Safford closing the gap, Thatcher opened the final period with a 10-play drive, that was aided by a Bulldog roughing the passer penalty that set the Eagles up deep in Safford territory at the 19 yard-line. With eight minutes on the clock Wren again found the Bulldog end zone, 27-14, Griffin PAT.

On their final drive of the game Safford moved the ball to the Thatcher 25-yard line, overcoming and converting on a 4 down and nine to go in the process. That drive would stall on yet another 4th and nine, this time they failed to convert.

With the Eagles assembled at the end of the game coach Daniel Jones told them, “Nice job boys. This was our trajectory; this is what we wanted, and we got what we wanted.”

Moments later, holding the rivalry trophy above his head, he said to the team, “This had been in my office all year and it is going back in there to stay.”

When asked about the win Jones said, “This is huge. With all the sickness, and quarantines, for everything to come together, I couldn’t be happier for us. We said if we do everything right people would see.”

Jones said the key to the game was, “controlling their speed, they are fast and we knew it. All week long we worked on trying to control and contain their speed. I felt like we did the right things to do that.”

The post season looms ahead for both teams playing in the 3A Conference Play-in part of the State Title Brackets. As of Saturday at noon the Arizona Athletic Association ranked Thatcher at No. 12 and Safford in the 13th spot. Friday night The Eagles will travel to meet No. 5 Arizona College Prep and the Bulldogs will be on the road to face No. 4 American Leadership Academy in Gilbert.

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