The Superior football team reached the 1A State Championship Semifinal game for the third-consecutive year and the third time was indeed the charm, as the No. 3 Panthers defeated the defending state champion and No. 2 Bagdad, 44 – 34.
The Panthers’ defense and former lineman, turned quarterback Steven Ybarra refused to let their team experience disappointment for a third-straight time at Maricopa High School last Saturday.
Superior recorded 10 sacks against Bagdad’s Israel Loveall, the national all-time leader for touchdown passes in 8-man football, and allowed only a lone touchdown in the second half after the Panthers held a 30 – 26 lead at halftime.
“We made a few small adjustments at halftime,” Superior head coach Ryan Palmer said after the game. “Really, it was just the kids deciding that we can do this. They went out there and made the plays happen. All the credit goes to our players, who showed a lot of heart and discipline.”
Ybarra, who ran for two touchdowns and passed for four more, totaled 475 yards of offense – 257 passing and 218 rushing – in the win. He also led the Panthers on defense with a team-high 15 tackles.
“Steven’s got a heck of a lot of heart,” Palmer said. “He has to be the conference Player of the Year because he doesn’t just lead on offense, he’s our leader on defense.”
The Panthers’ Region Player of the Year wasn’t surprised by the result.
“All week in practice we knew if we didn’t turn the ball over and we limited our penalties, we could win the game,” Ybarra said.
Ybarra, a junior, played nearly the entire game, missing only a few plays in the second half due to cramping. He returned to the field on offense after being carted off while the Panthers were on defense.
“I just give it all I have on every play,” Ybarra said. “I keep pushing forward and play with my mom in my heart. She carries me throughout the whole game.”
Considering the Sultans garnered more than 50 points a week ago against Ray, it appeared surprising that the high-scoring Panthers could manage only one touchdown in the opening quarter, which ended with the teams tied, 6 – 6.
“I knew that was exactly what was going to happen,” said Palmer, who wasn’t surprised by the low-scoring quarter. “If you look at history, when it comes to semifinals and championships, Bagdad coaches do a (great) job of preparing their kids. We knew it wasn’t going to be an easy chore to put the ball in the endzone.”
The Panthers’ first-quarter scoring output proved to be an aberration.
Superior opened the second quarter with a 67-yard touchdown pass from Ybarra to Jared Moreno, the first of three scoring plays between the junior teammates.
After being tied, 14 – 14, the teams traded scores in rapid fashion during the final five minutes of the half.
Ybarra threw his second touchdown pass to Moreno before Bagdad’s Loveall scored on a 50-yard run, which was followed by a 19-yard touchdown pass from Ybarra to freshman Adam Navarrette. Bagdad ended the first-half scoring with a 49-yard touchdown pass.
The Panthers increased their lead in the third quarter on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ybarra to Moreno.
“Jared Moreno stepped up huge,” Palmer said. “We rode him the whole way.”
The Sultans’ defense had difficulty containing Moreno all game long, as evidenced by his 170 receiving yards on nine receptions.
“Once I started running past them,” answered Moreno, when asked at what point of the game did he know Bagdad defenders couldn’t stay with him. “When that ball goes up, it’s mine.”
The Sultans’ offense, which scored 90-plus points a week ago, was stymied in the second half.
The Panthers’ defense, led by Cedric Mendoza, Matthew Diaz-Gonzales and Daniel Mcconnell, who combined for nine sacks, allowed only a four-yard run by Loveall in the second half with just more than six minutes remaining.
Ybarra’s second rushing touchdown of the game clinched the Panthers’ victory and a berth in Friday’s 1A State Championship Game.
“We’re just going to try to put our kids in the best spot to be successful,” said Palmer, looking ahead to Friday’s game versus No. 4 Williams. “These kids have already shown so much heart. I just hope they’re ready to give it (heck) next week.”
The Panthers’ players are hoping to kill two birds with one stone, starting with avenging a loss to the Vikings in last year’s semifinals.
“Hopefully it’s our second state championship in 2017,” Ybarra said in reference to Superior winning the baseball state title in May.