CASA GRANDE — The final score won’t show it, but the Lake Havasu Knights put a big scare into the second-ranked team in the 4A conference, leading for almost the entire first half of the play-in round Friday night.
The Knights (4-4) jumped out to a 14-point lead twice in that half behind commanding performances by Isaac Stopke and Donny Fitzgerald. However, as the game went on, Casa Grande Union’s (6-1) offense took control, and they ended with a 55-7 run thanks to six touchdowns by RJ Keeton and three by quarterback Angel Flores. But there were few heads hanging low on the Havasu sideline after the game.
“We knew we were coming in to play a good team,” said Havasu coach Karl Thompson. “I cannot be more proud of our guys accepting that challenge and performing for us tonight. We were toe to toe through the first half. A couple of things didn’t go our way. We lost the turnover battle, and Casa Grande made a couple more big plays. But you know what, it was a great football game.”
Thompson said the performance of his players, including seven starting sophomores, showed how much of a different team the Knights are compared to Week 2, when they came to Casa Grande and lost 52-7. He said they made plenty of adjustments since then, and were ready to try them out against the Cougars on Friday.
The Cougars, who will host next week’s quarterfinal game against a yet-to-be-determined opponent, stung the 15th-seeded Knights for 21 points in both the second and third quarters and tacked on 20 in the final period.
“Our offensive line had a great night and once the defense stepped up and started playing, we shut them down,” Casa Grande coach Jake Barro said.
Lake Havasu failed to reach the end zone in its last six possessions after scoring on four of its first six. Andon Eager, Jacob Thomas and Justin Campbell each had one interception for the Cougars, who also stopped the Knights on downs twice in the second half.
Keeton began his touchdown barrage with a 44-yard run that cut Lake Havasu’s lead to 14-7 with 9:21 left in the second quarter. Next came a 20-yard run with 3:32 remaining in the second that reduced the deficit to 21-14.
His third-quarter TDs came on runs of 21 yards with 11:13 left and 3 yards with four seconds remaining in the third to put the Cougars up 42-28. Keeton also had touchdown runs of 3 and 17 yards in the fourth quarter.
Flores put CG Union ahead to stay at 35-28 on a 50-yard TD run with 8:37 to play in the third period. His other scoring runs covered 32 and 8 yards.
“That’s what needed to happen,” Barro said of the performances by Keeton and Flores. “You count on your big-time guys to make big-time plays.”
Stopke scored Lake Havasu’s first three touchdowns on runs of 2 and 21 yards and a 6-yard reception from Fitzgerald. The Knights’ first possession of the third quarter ended with Fitzgerald throwing an 84-yard TD pass to Cody Pellaton that produced a 28-28 tie with 10:16 left.
Lake Havasu rushed for 215 yards in the first half but gained just 58 on the ground in the last two quarters. The Knights racked up 439 total yards, with Fitzgerald throwing for 166.
“We shored up some things on the offensive line since the last time we played down here,” Thompson said. “Our line has done a tremendous job working together as a unit, and when you’ve got two guys who can go both ways, you have to cover the whole field.”
Thompson was sure to be grateful after the game that his young players got the chance at all to gain playoff experience after all the uncertainty that came with this season of high school football.
“If you had asked me when we got shut down over the summer, I would have said this season was going to be a wash,” Thompson said. “But you know what, we’re right here. My phone is blowing up with so many alumni guys. … Now with only 11 seniors leaving, next year we’re going to get right back to it.”