Superior displays heart of a champion as repeat effort is thwarted

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Second place, but first place in our hearts! Superior Panthers are the Runners Up for the 2019 1A State Football Championship. (Phalicitee “Pinky” Thomas photo)

  Losing hurts. 

  Sometimes in more ways than one.

  The Superior football team experienced both physical and mental pain during and after last Saturday night’s 1A State Championship game. While the physical pain may last a few more days or weeks, the Panthers’ mental anguish should heal quickly in knowing they played with the heart of a champion even in defeat.

  No. 1 Williams, which was physically bigger and deeper, dethroned defending champion Superior, 35 – 20.

  “We had our chances to win,” Superior head coach Ryan Palmer said afterwards. “At the end of the day, it wasn’t because we weren’t giving everything that we had. The heart that our kids showed, and the grit and the toughness, the never-say-die attitude is exactly why these players have been to the state championship three years in-a-row. If they continue doing that and continue the work ethic, that will be the reason we get back here next year. I’m so proud of them.”

  The Panthers did have their chances, but unlike so many other times when they capitalized on similar opportunities, most times they couldn’t against the Vikings, whose aggressiveness bordered on dirty throughout the game.

  Williams started the scoring after intercepting a Superior pass and driving 72 yards for a touchdown. The Vikings recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, but the Panthers prevented any scoring when it blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt. 

  Eventually the Panthers got going on their next drive. Sophomore quarterback Matthew Cruz, who finished 13-of-25 for 206 yards with as pair of touchdowns, threw a 19-yard scoring pass to Josh Marquez to cut the Vikings lead to 7 – 6.

  After a Vikings touchdown following an onside kick by the Panthers, Cruz threw his second touchdown of the game, a 67-yard hookup with Gabe Otero to cut Williams lead to 15 – 12. 

  Things were difficult from there on for Superior, which couldn’t capitalize on a couple recovered onside kicks and four fumbles. Instead, attrition took its toll on the Panthers as several players were evaluated by trainers after both penalized and non-penalized plays by Williams, including Cruz, who missed the last 18 minutes of the game with concussion symptoms. At one point, three Panthers’ starters were held out of the game during the fourth quarter.

  One of them was junior Adam Navarrette, who returned battered and bruised to score on a two-yard touchdown run with 3:05 left to pull his team within one score, 28 – 20. 

  That scoring run was setup following a recovered fumble by Nathan Duarte. One time, if not the only one, that the Panthers cashed in on an extra offensive opportunity. 

  Unfortunately, that was as close as the Panthers would get, finishing as the 2019 1A State Runner-Up.

  “These payers made a decision that they were going to leave it all on the field,” Palmer said about his team’s mental toughness throughout the game. “Whatever the score is at the end doesn’t matter if you know you left it all (out there). That’s the best you can do. There’s nothing to be upset or disappointed about and you can hold your head high.”

  Five seniors – Sammy Lopez, Julian Navarro, Gabe Otero, Daniel McConnell, and Gabe Castillo – experienced a level of success on the football field never achieved before by a group of players at the school. The players that follow and aim to endure the championship tradition that the seniors established have the blueprint of the sacrifice required to be a champion.

  “These seniors are going to leave to the most decorated football class in the history of the school,” Palmer said. “They set the standard of excellence for others to live up to.

  “The underclassmen should feel nothing more than a fire to get back here next year and win it.”

  That would be the best pain relief of all.

Andy Luberda (1133 Posts)

Andrew Luberda began writing for Copper Area News Publishers (CANP) in February 2013 after working 15 years in Healthcare Financial Management. Andy covers sports for 11 high schools. His stories are published in Copper Basin News, San Manuel Miner and Superior Sun, in addition to the San Tan Valley Daily PRSS and CopperArea websites. Additionally, he has written human interest stories and business profiles. In May 2012, he earned an AAS in Sports Management at Central Arizona College before graduating with a BS in Communication from Arizona State University in 2014. He and his wife, Kelli, have three sons – AJ, Kyle, and Kade.

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