Marana advances to the 5A quarterfinals with win over Phoenix Sunnyslope

Elijah Joplin pushes a Sunnsyslope defender to the ground in the third quarter on Friday night before following a block by Jaelen Collins and diving into the end zone. (Kevin Murphy/ All Sports Tucson)

No. 8 Marana held off No. 9 Phoenix Sunnyslope, 26-17, in the opening round of the 5A state playoffs in front of their home crowd on Friday night.

“I’m just excited for the boys. This group of seniors has been with each other since middle school and elementary,” Marana head coach Philip Steward said. “They grew up in this neighborhood. They’ve seen all what Marana has done in the past and they wanted to get an opportunity at it.”

No. 1 Notre Dame Prep will host No. 8 Marana in the 5A quarterfinals next Friday, Nov. 25. Kickoff is at 7 pm

With 11:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, Sunnyslope junior quarterback Luke Moga scrambled for a 14-yard touchdown to narrow Marana’s lead to 19-17.

Sunnyslope’s defense held strong on Marana’s following possession, forcing the Tigers to punt after a three-and-out.

After getting into Marana’s red zone, Sunnyslope was stalled by the Tigers’ defense, setting up a 20-yard field goal attempt from the 3-yard line.

Marana junior cornerback JaelenCollins deflected the field goal, sending it wide left with 7:10 left.

Marana punted the following possession after getting stalled out near midfield.

On third-and-15, with Sunnyslope pinned back at its 16-yard line, senior outside linebacker and runningback Matthew Jensen chased down Moga on a quarterback scramble, tackling him from behind at the line of scrimmage with 2:45 to go in the game.

“I just saw him blitzing out, and I knew that both the linebackers were supposed to get there, but I didn’t see my other linebacker,” Jensen said. “I assumed he was covering his zone and covering his man. So, I was like, ‘I got to take him, because no one else is going to do it.’ He (Moga) already had a fast pace on me, and I knew there was no way I would catch him. If I left my feet I had to get him, so that’s what I had to do.”

Moga’s pass fell incomplete on fourth down, and Sunnyslope turned the ball over on downs.

“As we’ve been preaching all year: defense is going to win us championships. Defense is going to take us to where we want to go,” Steward said. “When they stopped us and our defense went down there and made that goal-line stand, I didn’t hesitate to put them back on that field when there was four minutes left. I told the defensive coordinator, ‘I’m putting it in your hands,’ because our defense is going to need this if we want to continue to play in these playoffs.”

“Our defense was going to need a game like this to get better and they went out there and got the job done, and I’m just proud of them boys.”

Jensen scored a 2-yard rushing touchdown, his third of the game, with 1:43 remaining to put Marana up 26-17, sealing the victory for the Tigers.

“The gameplan was to just use our fast-paced offense against them,” Jensen said. “We knew that some of their O-line play D-line, and we just knew if we played a fast-paced offense, we would be able to destroy them. We just know that no one conditions like us.”

Sunnyslope punted on the first possession of the game.

Sophomore wide receiver December Roebuck returned the punt to Sunnyslope’s 47-yard line, leading to a 2-yard rushing touchdown from Jensen later in Marana’s opening drive that put Marana up 7-0.

Sunnyslope started its next drive from its 20-yard line, before it methodically drove the ball down the field, relying heavily on the run game and specifically senior running back Jackson Sriro.

With under a minute in the first quarter, Sunnyslope senior kicker Kyle Cunanan hit a 54-yard field goal to close the gap to 7-3.

Sunnyslope took the lead after Moga connected with junior wide receiver Dillon Dwiggins on 66-yard touchdown reception to put the Vikings up 10-7 midway through the second quarter.

Marana would retake the lead, at 13-10, after a 1-yard touchdown run from Jensen with 4:50 to go in the first half. Marana missed the extra point.

Sunnyslope strung together a 74-yard drive on its final possession of the first half, which included a 47-yard run from Mora, before Marana’s defense forced a turnover on downs at the 6-yard line.

Marana and Sunnyslope traded turnovers on the first two drives of the third quarter, an interception by Sunnyslope senior James Gray Cottrell, followed by a fumble recovery by Marana senior defensive tackle Logan Thatcher.

senior quarterback Elijah Joplin scored on a 14-yard touchdown run to stretch Marana’s lead to 19-10 with 8:30 left in the third quarter. The Tigers failed on the PAT that followed.

After talking to his team in the end zone following the game, players, their family members and some students gathered around Steward, waiting for a chance to speak with him.

The mood was celebratory and triumphant, something he knows the Tigers will have to shake as they prepare for Notre Dame Prep next week.

“Our mentality each week is the same thing, we want to be 1-0 at the end of the week. We’re going to enjoy this tonight, but we’re going to go back to work Monday,” he said. “The boys know each week we’re trying to go 1-0, and that’s going to continue to be our mentality going forward. 1-0 each week.”

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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com writing intern Kevin Murphy was born and raised in Tucson, and has followed Arizona Wildcats athletics since childhood. Murphy is a journalist product manager with the Green Valley News & the Sahuarita Sun. He is currently attending the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at ASU where he is working towards a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies.

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