Jalen Lee (3) and Johnny Johnson celebrate during the Maricopa Rams victory at Shadow Mountain. Photo by Willy Lange

By Adam Wolfe

The Maricopa High School Rams used special teams and defense to dominate the Matadors of Shadow Mountain High School Friday night. The Rams were coming off of a game that saw their offense explode for nearly 700 yards against Agua Fria High School last week. This week was a different story. Senior quarterback Aaron Owens appeared unable to find a rhythm, and the offense that looked so dangerous just seven days ago looked flat and uncoordinated. The offense still managed to control the game and score 31 points, but the defense and special teams carried the Rams to victory Friday night. “It was an ugly win, but at the same time, I never felt like we weren’t in control,” MHS football head coach Chris McDonald said. “We’ve got good seniors. We have a core group of just 12 guys, but they’ve played a lot of football and they know how to lead. To do what we did tonight, I’m proud of them.”

The Rams took an early 7-0 lead on their first drive of the game. McDonald planned to establish his running game more in this game, and that’s exactly what the Rams did. Despite losing starting center and team captain Nikolai White to an injury for the game, the Rams front line opened holes in the defense and offered plenty of protection for Aaron Owens. After a few short runs, sophomore running back Cameron Sanders gashed through the Shadow Mountain defense for 25 yards and a touchdown.

After the defense held for the second straight series, the Rams blocked the Matadors’ punt attempt. The recovery gave Maricopa excellent field position inside the Shadow Mountain 20 yard line. After a short run, Aaron Owens dropped back and heaved the ball to the corner of the end zone trying to find his brother, junior wide receiver David Owens. The pass did not carry far enough and was intercepted by the Matadors. Shadow Mountain tried to run the ball up the middle and pass the ball to the outside, but the Rams defense stayed strong.

The Matadors were forced to punt again. Maricopa was able to drive down the ball inside the Shadow Mountain twenty yard line, but after Aaron Owens was unable to find an open receiver, the Rams were forced to settle for a field goal. Senior kicker Luis Elizondo hit a 30-yard field goal down the center, and the Rams took a 10-0 lead into the second quarter.

Shadow Mountain responded quickly with a touchdown on the next drive. Junior quarterback Darion Spottsville threw a short pass to senior wide receiver Destin Nasr. Maricopa senior defensive back Johnny Johnson Jr. appeared to have Nasr wrapped up after a short gain, but instead of completing the tackle, Johnson tried to strip the ball out of the receiver’s hand. Nasr was able to break free and outrun the defense for a 63-yard touchdown.

The teams exchanged punts before Maricopa drove down the field and scored again. After breaking down the Matadors front line with runs up the middle, Aaron Owens connected with David Owens for a 30-yard touchdown pass. The Rams scored again just before halftime to extend their lead to 24-7. Defense dominated the first 10 minutes of the second half.

The scoreless third quarter was ended when Shadow Mountain senior quarterback Conor Merrill connected with Nasr for a 60-yard touchdown. The game quickly turned back into a defensive battle with both teams exchanging punts. However, after Maricopa’s defense forced Shadow Mountain to punt from deep in their own territory, Johnson returned the punt for a touchdown.

Maricopa entered the fourth quarter with a 31-14 lead. The Rams defense held the Matadors scoreless for the rest of the game. Jalen Lee blocked a second Matador punt attempt, and the Rams recovered it in the end zone for a touchdown. Maricopa scored one more time on a 19-yard run from senior quarterback Isaiah Pedro and left North Phoenix with a 45-14 win over Shadow Mountain. “I’m disappointed in the offense tonight,” McDonald said. “I just felt like we didn’t have any gas tonight. It seemed like they were playing at three-quarter speed. Our game plan coming in was to run the ball against these guys, but there was no rhythm to it. One drive we’d pop plus-five gains, and the next one we couldn’t. We just weren’t executing.”

Aaron Owens was 18 for 26 for 136 yards passing. Sanders and D’Angelo Edgerton led the rushing yards with 58 each.

The offense may have been flat and out of sync, but the saving grace for the Rams was the dominance of their defense. With the exception of two long pass plays that led to touchdowns for the Matadors, the Rams defense completely shut down Shadow Mountain’s potent passing attack. Most drives for Shadow Mountain ended after just three plays, and Darion Spottsville, who had over 500 yards passing entering the game, was connected on only four of his 22 pass attempts.

The Rams also dominated the special teams portion of the game. Last week, the special teams unit struggled to place kicks and contain kick returns. This week, Maricopa defenders swarmed to ball carriers, and the addition of Elizondo to  kicking game allowed the team to have confidence their ability to pin their opponent deep in their own territory.

“Tonight was definitely all about the special teams and defense,” McDonald said. “I thought we played pretty sloppy on offense. Just think of what we could accomplish if we could actually execute on a semi-good rate.”