The Nogales Apaches raised their record to 3-0 on Friday with a hard-fought 17-14 victory over the Rio Rico Hawks in front of boisterous crowds on both sides of Apache Stadium.
It was the third-straight nailbiter for the undefeated Apaches, who have won their three games by a combined total of 11 points.
“When we click, we’re so good. But first quarter, we could have been up 21-0. We get emotional,” said senior NHS running back Paul Gracia, who carried the ball 23 times for 156 yards and a touchdown. “But we’ll fix it and next week we’ll be ready for Walden Grove.”
The Hawks, who fell to 2-2 with the loss, gave their Santa Cruz County neighbors a run for their money after losing the past three rivalry games by an average of 36 points.
“We did pretty good, we’re improving some stuff,” said RRHS quarterback Edryann Rodriguez. “They’re a good football team, but we’ve got to keep working for next week.”
After a scoreless first quarter, Nogales got on the board less than two minutes into the second period when Juan Velasquez kicked a 21-yard field goal.
With a little more than seven minutes remaining before halftime, the Apaches made it 10-0 when Gracia scored on a 28-yard touchdown run and Velasquez followed with the extra point.
“I felt amazing,” Gracia said of his big rushing day, adding: “It’s on my lineman. When they pull, they go second level. They open everything up for me.”
The Hawks rallied in the closing moments of the half after Rodriguez carried the ball 11 yards on a quarterback keeper on fourth-and-seven, putting Rio Rico at the Nogales 22 with a minute left. Cristian Vega ran the ball to the 13 with 30 seconds remaining, and two plays later, he scored on a 10-yard run with six seconds left as a burst of confetti rained down on the jubilant red-clad student section in the visitors’ grandstand.
The Hawks couldn’t covert the point-after attempt, however, and the score was 10-6 at halftime.
Rio Rico moved the ball down the field to start the third quarter on a pair of pass plays, but Jose Jimenez brought down Vega in the backfield for a loss, and a subsequent incomplete pass on third-and-14 forced the Hawks to punt.
Nogales took advantage on their next possession when quarterback Pedro Rodriguez hit Aidan Luevano with a pass along the sidelines and Luevano ran the ball in for a 55-yard touchdown play with 6:03 left in the quarter. Velasquez’s extra point kick made the score 17-6, and the raucous maroon-dominated, flag-waving NHS student section took numerous opportunities from then on to chant, “Scoreboard!” at their counterparts across the field.
After a pair of defensive stops for each team, the Hawks moved the ball to the Nogales 10-yard line on a 45-yard pass by Rodriguez to Vega with a little more than a minute left in the quarter.
A personal foul on the Apaches on the play gave Rio Rico first down and goal to go at the five, but the NHS defense sealed off the end zone and the sequence ultimately ended on a missed Hawk field goal on fourth-and-13.
“It all comes down to working together because if someone does something by himself, then everything gets ruined,” senior NHS lineman Gerson Galeano said of the Apaches defense. “It’s a game of teamwork and there were plays where we didn’t demonstrate that, but we got it done.”
Rio Rico got the ball back a little more than a minute into the fourth quarter on an interception by Emmanuel Rodriguez and drove deep into Apache territory, a carry by Edryann Rodriguez setting up first-and-goal at the NHS four-yard line. With Hawk running back Frank Gonzales – seven rushing touchdowns in the team’s two previous games – on the sidelines after suffering an injury, the Nogales defense stood tall with three consecutive stops.
But on fourth-and-three, Edryann Rodriguez dove across the goal line on a quarterback keeper to make the score 17-12.
Rio Rico went for the two-point conversion and Rodriguez again carried the ball into the end zone to cut the NHS lead to 17-14 with 6:44 left in the game.
“Frank’s a good player and we need him out there, but I stepped up. I didn’t win the game, but I’m proud of myself,” Rodriguez said afterward.
Asked how it felt to score a touchdown against Nogales, the junior quarterback said, “It feels pretty good,” adding: “I’ve still got next year, though.”
It turned out to be the last possession of the game for the Hawks, as the Apaches handled an onside kick and chewed up time on a methodical drive down the field. Rio Rico was out of time outs, so when Richard Hanlan picked up five yards on a rush to give Nogales a first down with 1:43 left, it allowed the Apaches to run out the clock.
“We were sloppy at some points in the game – those 14 points shouldn’t have gotten on the board,” NHS senior lineman Hernan Ortiz said. “But they’re a really well-coached team by Coach (Kevin) Kuhm. He was going to put them in the right spots to score.”
The Apaches next play on Friday, Sept. 20, when they host Walden Grove (2-1) at Apache Stadium starting at 7 p.m.
Rio Rico plays at the same time and date, hosting Casa Grande (2-2) at Hawk Stadium.