WILLCOX — A crucial turnover, a stall in the red zone and the surrender of three long scoring plays were nearly overcome by the Willcox Cowboys football team during a 27-21 loss to the Morenci Wildcats on Friday night.
“You’ve got to win the first quarter and the fourth quarter,” Willcox head coach Eric Hjalmarson said. “We lost the first quarter and just couldn’t make it all the way back.”
The Cowboys dug themselves a 20-0 hole by the early stages of the second quarter at home before starting their comeback with a late second quarter score to make it 20-7 at halftime.
Morenci made it 27-7 late in the third, weathered two Willcox scores in the fourth and smothered an onside kick attempt near the end to secure the win. Friday’s win keeps the Wildcats in a strong position for the playoff hunt while Willcox must win at Benson to get their postseason shot.
“Willcox is a great football team, they played hard, our guys played hard, too,” Morenci head coach Joe Gonzalez said.“I’m super proud of their effort.”
The Wildcats’ hot start included a 48-yard touchdown pass from sophomore quarterback Daylen Johnson to sneaky tight end Maddux Martinez, who got behind the Willcox defense to make the catch and outrace the defenders to the end zone with 3:12 remaining in the first.
Morenci forced a fumble at the Willcox 20-yard line less than a minute later and converted in just three plays as senior tailback L.T. Morey scampered 11 yards to score with 10 seconds left in the first quarter for a 14-0 advantage.
The Cowboys drove all the way to the Morenci 10-yard line on the next possession but gave the ball over on downs when they came up one yard short on fourth-and-eight.
Wildcats freshman Micheal Casillas appeared to break the game open three plays later on a 74-yard scoring burst up the middle that made it 20-0 with 6:25 left in the first half.
But Willcox went to work and didn’t give up.
Senior tailback Ote Allsup got it started, with five straight carries from the 14-yard line, scoring on third-and-goal from the 1 to cut the deficit to two touchdowns by halftime. He would finish the game with 129 yards on 21 carries, plus two pass receptions for 19 yards.
“Ote plays very well and is a great senior leader,” said Hjalmarson of the player who doubles as middle linebacker and led the team in tackles.
The comeback was pierced somewhat by Morenci’s second hookup between Johnson and Martinez for a 22-yard strike at 1:27 of the third period.
Cowboys sophomore flanker Christian Pando took over in the fourth, catching a 21-yard pass and concluding an impressive drive with a 7-yard run while taking a helmet-to-helmet hit in the end zone with 9:24 to go.
The Wildcats failed to put the game away but did eat up the clock before stalling at the Willcox 14-yard line on their ensuing drive.
Pando caught passes of 22, 10 and 17 yards from sophomore teammate Ayden Fuentes. The 17-yard pass cut the deficit to six points, but only 54 seconds were left on the clock.
The Wildcats recovered the Willcox onside kick and preserved a win that should get them a postseason playoff berth as they improved to 5-1 while hoping to hold off Pima in their season finale next week.
“We were coming off a big loss to Benson where we kind of felt we left some cards on the table. We sure hope this helps our playoff chances,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez reappeared in the head coaching ranks after his last stint as a head football coach was heading Willcox to a 7-3 record and playoff appearance in 2012.
Willcox’s 3-1 start to the year is their best start in recent years with Hjalmarson, who took Safford to an 8-2 region title run last year. But this abbreviated season is coming to an end and Willcox faces a must-win situation in the season finale at 5-0 region leader Benson next Friday.
The Bobcats are led by the highly respected Chris Determan, a winner since he took over in 2012 and who has defeated Willcox seven consecutive times to keep the traveling Seney-Lohman trophy in Benson.
“It’s going to be fun to play against somebody who’s good and competitive and who has built a good program over there. We have our work cut out for us,” Hjalmarson said.