By Adam Wolfe
The Maricopa High School Rams will be facing the Shadow Mountain Matadors without the services of wide receiver and team captain Johnny Johnson Jr.
Johnson led Maricopa with 287 receiving yards, an interception and four total touchdowns in the team’s opening game against Agua Fria Friday night. However, Johnson was removed from the game by referees early in the fourth quarter after allegedly spiking the ball following an interception he returned for his fourth touchdown of the night.
According to Arizona Interscholastic Association, the excessive celebration warrants a one-game suspension. The loss of Johnson takes away a deep threat on offense and one of the team’s top defensive backs on defense.
“Not having Johnny Johnson for this game obviously puts us at more of a disadvantage than we could be,” MHS football head coach Chris McDonald said. “We’re not at full strength without an impact player like him, so somebody else will have to step up and fill the role. [Shadow Mountain] likes to throw more than they like to run, so it hurts us even more since we’re losing one of our best cover guys.”
Seniors Aaron Owens and Isaiah Pedro will be asked to cover Johnson’s position on defense, but the duo could have their hands full with senior wide receiver Jake Welsheimer. The standout senior for the Matadors has 12 receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns on the season.
During last week’s game against Browne High School, Welsheimer caught six passes for 168 yards and three touchdowns. Shadow Mountain is a pass-heavy team, and the potent aerial attack is sure to test the Rams secondary.
SMHS junior quarterback Darion Spottsville has completed nearly 60 percent of his passes on the season, and hasn’t thrown an interception in 45 attempts. In last week’s win over Browne, Spottsville completed 10 passes out of 17 attempts for 266 yards and five touchdowns.
As good as the passing game is for Shadow Mountain; their running game has been a weakness early in the season. Despite beating Browne 49-6 over the weekend, running backs produced only 26 yards on 16 carries. In their season opening game against Nogales, the Matadors pieced together just five yards on 13 carries en route to a 31-18 defeat.
For the Rams, it will be important for the defense to put pressure on Spottsville and contain Welsheimer. Coming off a performance where they gave up over 200 rushing yards to Agua Fria, the Rams will look for improvements along the front line.
“The thing that we need to address is the rushing yards. We gave up way too many,” McDonald said. “Going into the game we knew they would be bigger than us by a lot, but in the scheme of things, when you look at a team like Agua Fria that ran as a spread offense, no huddle, we gave up 350 total yards. The defense really wasn’t the issue. Take away the kick returns and the scoop and score on the 5-yard line and it’s not even a game. The defense didn’t give up 46 points. They played well enough for that game not to be a game.”
Last week, the Rams’ offense showcased a balanced attack against Agua Fria. Aaron Owens completed 23 of 28 passes for 537 yards and six touchdowns, and the running game produced 133 yards on 35 carries. The offense was so dominant that Owens was named the Arizona Cardinals state Player of the Week, and Owens and Johnson were both named American Family Insurance All-USA Arizona Performers of the Week.
Maricopa should expect a tougher time moving the ball against Shadow Mountain this week. The Matadors have given up 529 total yards in their first two games, and the majority of that came when Nogales shredded the Matadors defense for 323 rushing yards in their opener.
The loss of Johnson will adjust the Rams’ game plan, and the passing attack will look to Pedro, junior David Owens and sophomore Longman Pyne to fill the gap left by Johnson’s suspension. The team will also look to the running game to provide relief and balance once again.
“We’re going to get in a lot of three wide receiver and two running back sets and maybe get in an extra fullback and run,” McDonald said. “We’ll still spread them out, but we’re going to go right at them. I think our line can do that.”
The Rams offense may take another blow this week as senior center and team captain Nikolai White is dealing with some health issues. His status is uncertain at this time and he will be a game-time decision.
Despite the personnel setbacks, McDonald still believes he has enough talent on his team to compensate for the potential injuries.
“We can spread you out horizontally and if you take that away we’ll hit you vertically,” McDonald said. “We have enough guys on this roster that if you get them the ball in space, they’ll do some damage. We just need some guys to step up this week.”
The game will kick off at 7 p.m. at Shadow Mountain High School’s stadium is on campus, 2902 E Shea Blvd., Phoenix.