By Adam Wolfe
The Maricopa High School Rams held off a late charge from the Agua Fria High School Owls to claim a 53-46 victory in the opening game of the 2015 season.
Before the game began, the Rams were able to take a moment to reflect on the week they had endured. Just one week ago, senior linebacker Nate Ford died in a traffic accident. Instead of falling into despair, his teammates rallied around the tragedy and found new purpose in playing to honor their friend.
Ford was named the team’s fourth captain for the game. His father, wearing his number 42, stood in his place. A helmet with “R.I.P. Nate” on the front was placed on the bench next to a wreath that read “Nate Ford #42.” To enter the field, the team ran through a banner that read “State for Nate,” and the team carried a red and black flag with a large 42 on it.
A long moment of silence was to remember Ford, and fans wore red, white and blue in his honor.
The most stunning gesture came from the Agua Fria Owls. Friday morning the team announced via Twitter they would swap out player numbers on the sides of their helmets for the number 42 in honor of Nate Ford. Agua Fria’s captains also presented a wreath to the Maricopa captains at the coin toss.
Once the game began, it was clear this would be a shootout. Agua Fria’s Jaylon Green ran the opening kickoff back for a touchdown. After just 15 seconds, Maricopa was trailing by six.
However, in response, the team marched down the field and scored a touchdown to take a 7-6 lead. Senior quarterback Aaron Owens found his brother, junior wide receiver David Owens, open in the corner of the end zone.
The game went back and forth for the entire first half. Each team would briefly take the lead just before the other snatched it right back. However, thanks to more than 200 receiving yards from senior wide receiver Johnny Johnson Jr. and over 300 yards passing from Aaron Owens, the Rams held a 27-23 lead at the half.
“We have a lot of athletes and we can spread the ball around,” MHS football head coach Chris McDonald said. “Tonight was just Johnny’s night. My job is to get the ball into the kid’s hands and Johnny does what Johnny does. I like the personnel we got because you just pick your poison.”
The Rams demonstrated how potent their offensive firepower was in the second half. They outscored the Owls 13-3 in the third quarter and added two more touchdowns within the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
With just eight minutes remaining in the game, the Rams held a 53-26 lead. Then, in a hurry, things fell apart, and the Owls mounted a comeback. With two quick scores, the Rams’ lead was cut to just 13 points.
With 4:41 remaining in the game, just after Agua Fria had scored for the second time in the fourth quarter, the lights suddenly went out in the stadium. “Nate is here,” fans texted each other. For the next 15 minutes, they chanted “State for Nate” as the lights slowly turned back on.
Then Agua Fria successfully recovered an onside kick and drove to the Rams eight yard line. However, Maricopa stopped them there.
Maricopa used its running game to drain the last few minutes on the clock. The game seemed locked up before a fumble recovery turned into a touchdown for Agua Fria.
After another onside kick by Agua Fria was unsuccessful, the Rams ran out the clock and held on for a 53-46 victory.
“Overall, we got the [win] and we got it on an Agua Fria team that was much larger than us,” McDonald said. “We have a lot of things we can clean up. I’m proud of them, but at the same time, there’s a few things I’m a little disappointed in. As a head coach, my job is to try to maximize these guys, and if I was just a ‘rah-rah’ guy and told them I wasn’t disappointed I’d be doing them a disservice as a coach.”
The Rams were able to pull off the win in large part because of their explosive passing attack. Aaron Owens finished the game with 23 completions on 28 attempts for 537 yards and six touchdowns. Both David Owens and Johnny Johnson Jr. caught nine passes each. Johnson finished with 287 receiving yards and three touchdowns while David Owens finished with 202 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Isaiah Pedro also hauled in four passes for a total of 42 yards and a touchdown, and Longman Pyne caught one pass for 10 yards.
The running game also reeled off 133 total yards during the game. The team’s leading rusher was sophomore D’Angelo Edgerton with 16 carries for 77 yards. Sophomore Cameron Sanders also had a productive day with eight carries for 50 yards and a touchdown.
It wasn’t all good news for the Rams offense, though. Johnson was removed from the game early in the fourth quarter after allegedly spiking the ball following an interception return for a touchdown. The unsportsmanlike penalty could force him to miss next week’s game at Shadow Mountain High School.
On defense, the Rams struggled to contain Agua Fria’s highly touted seniors Chris Cofield and Jaylon Green. Cofield shredded the Rams defense for more than 200 yard of total offense, and Green returned two separate kicks for touchdowns.
The Rams stifled the Owls passing attack for the majority of the game, but the near collapse in the fourth quarter raised some questions heading into next week’s matchup.
The Shadow Mountain Matadors are currently 1-1 on the season but possess a dangerous passing attack that could pose a threat to the Rams inconsistent defense.