Lake Havasu/Casa Grande 4A play-in preview

Lake Havasu quarterback Donny Fitzgerald runs past defenders during the second quarter of a non-regional game against Vista Grande at Lee Barnes Stadium on Nov. 13. The Knights, as the No. 15 seed, will play No. 2 Casa Grande in a 4A play-in game on Friday.

When looking back at the beginning of the 2020 season, the Lake Havasu football team featured a young and inexperienced squad with only 11 seniors on its roster. With a lack of an offseason and no scrimmage, it was looking like a long season for the Knights after being outscored 33-100 in their first two games of the season.

After a rough 0-2 start, Havasu went 4-1 in its next five games and will have a chance to avenge one of its early season losses when the Knights face Casa Grande in a 4A play-in game on Friday.

Havasu (4-3, 3-1 Southwest) will travel as the No. 15 seed to play against the No. 2 Cougars (5-1) who routed the Knights 52-7 in week two of the season on Oct. 8. Havasu went on to clinch its spot in the 4A play-in bracket after a 64-22 win over Vista Grande last week.

“From that second week of the season to now, we’ve grown and we still hit some bumps on the road too to refigure things out and made some tweaks along the way,” Knights head coach Karl Thompson said. “We feel that when we started the season to now, we made a lot of great in-season adjustments and feel like we’re a way more competitive team then we were in that week two.”

It will be the Havasu’s first playoff appearance since 2015 and it’s also the first time in five years that the program ended the regular season with a winning record. The Knights’ last playoff run ended with a 17-14 loss to Pusch Ridge Christian Academy-Tucson in the semifinals.

It will be the first time that players from this current team will face postseason competition with the exception of quarterback Donny Fitzgerald, who played in a playoff game in California in 2018.

Defensive end Jon Justice, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament last season, is ecstatic about getting a taste of playoff action for the first time.

“To make the playoffs is a dream come true for me because I haven’t gotten to do that my four years,” Justice said. “This is the first year that I actually won a home game since I played for varsity so just even that is exciting for me. Mentality this week is to work hard, get up and get ready for this game.”

In the week two matchup, the Cougars went on to score 45 consecutive points after Havasu tied the game 7-7 in the first quarter on a 5-yard touchdown from Fitzgerald to Aaron Bracamonte.

The Knights struggled to contained Casa Grande’s rushing attack, which ran for 376 yards and scored five times. Cougars’ running back RJ Keeton led the ground game with 139 yards on seven carries. Casa Grande quarterback Angel Flores carried the ball 10 times for 94 yards and two touchdowns. Flores also had an efficient game through the air, passing for 148 yards and three touchdowns on 9-of-11 pass attempts.

In his second game at Havasu, Fitzgerald passed for 124 yards on 11-of-19 pass attempts and rushed for a season-low 15 yards on seven carries.

The senior has seen all around improvement since that early season loss.

“We’re a totally different team from when we played Casa Grande week two,” Fitzgerald said. “No only offensively, but defensively, special teams, we’re a different team. Our timing with our guys has gotten better on offense, me and receivers. Our lineman have gotten better.”

Isaac Stopke only had four carries in that game for 1 yard. Since then, Stopke has been a breakout player for the Knights, rushing for 871 yards and 11 touchdowns during the 4-1 stretch to close the season. He also had a three-game streak of 200-plus rushing games after the loss to Casa Grande.

The sophomore should make an impact this time around after finishing the regular season with the 15th-highest rushing total in the state. Stopke rushed for 926 yards in this year’s shortened season.

“We know they’re not going to let us get anything easy,” Stopke said. “You’re not going to be able to run the ball for 200 yards against them. It’s going to be, you’ll get three yards and then you just have to keep pounding the ball. It’s not going to be an easy game. It’s going to take everything that we have.”

Friday’s game is scheduled to kickoff at 7 p.m. Winners of this week’s 4A play-in games will advance to the 4A state tournament. Matchups for the 4A tournament will be announced on Saturday morning on the Arizona Prep 365 website.

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