DOUGLAS — The stands at Armando de Lucas Stadium were packed Friday as an estimated 2,000-3,000 fans showed up to watch the 151st meeting between Douglas and Bisbee in what is believed to be the oldest high school rivalry in the state and one of the oldest in the nation.
In their season-opener, the Bulldogs, led by junior quarterback Aiden Rodriguez, who never played a down of high school football until Friday night, battled back from a 14-0 first-half deficit to beat the Pumas 24-21.
Toward the end of the game Douglas fans could be heard chanting “bring it back,” referring to the coveted copper pick that goes to the winner of the game. The series began in 1906 and Bisbee has had possession of “The Pick” since 2017.
The loss is Bisbee’s first of the season and puts the Pumas at 2-1. The Pumas were playing without head coach Brian Vertrees, who was serving a one-game suspension following an incident after Bisbee’s game at Miami Sept. 3. Filling in for him was assistant coach Bob Coronado.
“To be able to coach in a game like this is always a pleasure,” Coronado said. “It was unfortunate (Brian) wasn’t here tonight because his insight is important to what we do.”
The game was played on Douglas’ recently installed synthetic-turf field. In 2010, when Douglas coach Hunter Long was a senior at DHS, the Pumas came to Douglas to play the first game on a synthetic field that had been installed over the summer and left with a 14-8 win.
“This is such an amazing feeling,” the third-year Douglas coach said. “I’m so proud of these kids. Losing The Pick my senior year and again my first year of coaching was rough. My staff and these kids have been working hard all summer just for this moment and tonight we did it, we brought The Pick back to Douglas. They told me at halftime they were going to go out and win it for me and they did. I’m so proud of them.”
For a while it looked like it was going to be deja vu all over again for Long and his Bulldogs as Bisbee struck first, scoring on a Diego Chavez 23-yard run on the opening drive. The Pumas went 86 yards on 13 consecutive runs and chewed up almost eight minutes on the clock. Chavez scored the 2-point conversion, giving Bisbee an 8-0 lead.
Sebastian Lopez’s 14-yard quarterback scamper in the second quarter increased the Pumas lead to 14-0.
With just less than six minutes remaining before halftime, Lopez went to the air. Bulldogs sophomore linebacker Emiliano Berthley was waiting, picking off the pass and running it back 24 yards for a touchdown. The Pumas led 14-6 following the botched extra point.
“We saw that play on film and worked on that all week,” Long said. “We knew they were going to run it at some point in the game and when they did we would have to be ready. Fortunately we were.”
“It was a really readable play,” Berthely said. “When I saw it was going to be a screen play I read it and was fortunate to be able to take it back for a touchdown.”
In the third quarter, Bulldogs senior running back Kevin Ybarra had a 26-yard TD run, making the score 14-12 after a failed conversion.
Bisbee fumbled on its next possession and Douglas senior Francisco Corrales was there for the recovery, setting up the Bulldogs deep in their own territory.
Rodriguez, known to many for his pitching and golfing skills along with being the son of DHS principal Melissa Rodriguez, began the second half under center.
The 6-foot-3, 225-pound quarterback showed no signs of nerves and proceeded to drive the offense toward the end zone, scoring on a 2-yard keeper and giving Douglas its first lead of the night at 18-14 with 3:31 remaining in the third.
Rodriguez would score again in the fourth quarter, this time on a 1-yard run, increasing the Bulldogs’ lead to 24-14 lead. His TD run was set up by a 28-yard pass to Berthely two plays before.
“Aiden did an excellent job for us tonight,” Long said. “We were somewhat hesitant putting him into the game knowing he hadn’t had that varsity experience. We put him in to start the second half. He came out ready and confident. We’re very happy with his performance.”
Rodriguez admitted he was somewhat nervous on his opening drive but quickly settled down.
“It was fun playing in a game like this,” he said. “Scoring that first touchdown was a feeling I had never experienced before. It felt really good. I was glad we were able to do this for the seniors.”
Despite the 10-point Douglas lead, fans at the game were not leaving and got to experience an exciting finish.
Geoffrey Gribble’s 7-yard TD run in the fourth quarter pulled the Pumas within three at 24-21 with just longer than six minutes remaining.
After forcing Douglas to punt with 27 seconds left in the game, the Pumas made one last effort to score but were pushed backward on two consecutive plays. Camden Miller’s 52-yard field goal attempt fell about 10 yards short of clearing the crossbar as Douglas held on for the win.
“A win like this helps set the tone for the rest of the season,” Long said. “We made a lot of mistakes tonight that we have to correct. We should have had a lot better game plan but these are things that we can work on and move on from here. We will get better.”
Coronado admitted the pick-six Douglas had was a key turning point in the game.
“I believe if that wouldn’t have happened it would have been a different ballgame,” he said. “Despite the loss I’m proud of these players and coaches. I can honestly say we left it all on the field tonight. It was one hell of a game. The rivalry is definitely back. Hats off to coach Long and his staff, and players, they played a heck of a game.”
Next up for Douglas is a road trip Friday, Sept. 17, to Safford where it will be Bulldogs vs. Bulldogs. Bisbee will be looking to bounce back with a trip to Sequoia Pathway Academy in Maricopa. Sequoia Pathway is 2-1 and coming off a 62-16 win over Highland Prep.