Superior’s Gabriel Castillo saved his best for last.
The sophomore defensive lineman made the play in the closing seconds that prevented a game-tying two-point conversion by Trivium Prep, preserving the No. 3-ranked Panthers’ 36 – 34 quarterfinal playoff victory last Saturday night at Superior Memorial Field.
With the win, the Panthers advance to the 1A State Playoff Semifinals for the third-straight year.
“We just had to go harder than them (on the conversion play),” Castillo told the Superior Sun afterwards. “We needed to win that play, we did that, and got the (win). It was a hard-fought game by both teams.”
Superior, which held leads of 12, 18 and 16 points during the game, was leading 36 – 28 with just more than two minutes remaining in the final quarter and a facing a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. Junior quarterback Steven Ybarra’s touchdown run was nullified on a holding penalty and his pass on the following play was incomplete, giving the Crimson Knights a final chance.
The Knights took advantage, benefitting from a personal foul call against the Panthers before completing a 33-yard touchdown pass with 15 seconds left in the game. Castillo made the play of the game on the ensuing conversion attempt.
Trivium Prep, which had not lost since its season-opening loss to this Panthers’ team, outnumbered Superior nearly two to one. Considering those two factors, in addition to a depleted Panthers’ roster due to injuries, including defensive standout and top receiver Cedric Mendoza, and the difficulty of beating the same team twice in a season, there was joyous relief following the win.
“Gutsy, that’s the word I would use,” Superior head coach Ryan Palmer said after the game about his team’s performance. “I’m so proud of these kids and the heart they showed.”
“I’m so happy for them to get to experience a night like (Saturday’s), where even when things looked gloom we never gave up,” he continued. “We had to make one last play to make and we made it.”
Ybarra and freshman Adam Navarrette were almost exclusively the extent of the Panthers’ offense, yet the Knights’ couldn’t contain either.
“It was all about execution and everybody doing their job,” Palmer said. “We had guys down, it was no secret, but our kids stepped up and did what we asked them do to do.”
Ybarra, the Region Player of the Year, rushed for 229 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries. He completed 10-of-17 passes for 81 yards with a touchdown pass to junior Jesus Castellanos.
“I’m so proud of our whole team,” said Ybarra. “We gave everything we had (Saturday) night. We knew we had to play with heart to win this game.”
Navarrette, a member of the two-time Central Jr. High League Championship team, is used to the pressure of the playoffs. He’s played like a varsity veteran all season, not the freshman he is. The Panthers’ multi-threat player rushed for 35 yards on six carries and caught seven passes for 64 yards last Saturday.
“Working hard in practice every day,” Navarrette answered when asked how he’s been able to contribute so much so soon. “I knew I’d have to do that to play on this team.”
The Panthers will take on No. 2 Bagdad on Saturday at Maricopa High School, their third semifinal appearance in as many seasons.
“We are going to do our best to get healthy and figure out what we have to game plan for Bagdad,” Palmer said. “Right now, we’re going to celebrate this because it was an emotional win.”