Defense was the main highlight of the Wranglers’ 36-8 loss to visiting Safford last Friday night, with junior lineman Jett Uldrikson (55) wrapping up the Bulldogs’ ball carrier while teammates Jimmy Waters (51), Tyler Ness (32), and Kaden Conway (10) are primed to jump in and assist in the tackle.
By Kevin Cloe
Now the focus turns to the 3A West Region … but … as the predictable coaches’ quote goes, one game at a time.
After losing its first two games of the season, Wickenburg High School’s football team hopes to notch its first victory this Friday night when its hosts a struggling Paradise Honors squad out of Surprise.
The Wranglers still have three more games to play before starting 3A West Region competition, but they might be keeping one eye on how their region opponents are faring. After finishing second in the region standings to eventual state champion Northwest Christian last year, the Wranglers hope to at least match that performance this season. However, at least two other region foes are starting the season strong.
Northwest Christian, with an unofficial No. 1 ranking in the 3A Conference so far this season, won its first two games against Fountain Hills, 45-20, and previously No. 1-ranked Yuma Catholic, 45-17. Then there’s River Valley with a 2-1 early season record — topping Needles, Calif., 49-18; Colorado River neighbor Mohave, 31-21; and losing to larger Lee Williams of Kingman, 12-0. The Dust Devils suffered through a 4-6 season last year after the Wranglers defeated them, 42-21.
Surprising Kingman also started strong with a 2-0 mark with overwhelming scores of 58-0 against tiny Pinon and 66-8 against Sedona Red Rock. The Bulldogs were 3-7 and were hammered by the Wranglers last year, 84-14.
The other two region opponents — Chino Valley (1-2) and Kingman Academy (0-2) — have started slow this season.
Northwest Christian is an overwhelming favorite to win the region again this year, but the Wranglers need to win at least two of their next three pre-region games and then dominate the other four teams in region play for a chance to qualify for the state playoffs for the fourth consecutive year.
The Wranglers’ performances in their first two games this season have put a return to the playoffs in question.
Last Friday night against ninth-ranked Safford echoed the same concerns as the season-opening loss to archival Parker the previous week. In fact, the scores were eerily similar: the 36-8 loss to Safford compared to the previous 36-6 loss to the Broncs.
Last Friday, however, a new problem popped up – fumbles.
The Wranglers lost their grip on the ball seven times against the visiting Bulldogs — with six resulting in turnovers. Two of those six were on fourth-and-1 situations — needing only one yard to keep an offensive drive going — and one of the four resulted in a Safford touchdown.
“We’ve got to fix the fumbles,” a frustrated head coach Mike Mitchell told his players after Friday’s loss. “You can’t win if you fumble the ball away five (actually six) times. We gave it (the game) away.”
Most of those fumbles occurred during the direct snap exchange between center Jett Uldrickson and quarterback Bryson Alder, with only one recovered by the Wranglers.
Like the previous week, the Wranglers’ offense had trouble sustaining a drive all night. That offense amassed only 117 total yards (92 rushing and 25 passing) compared Safford’s 269 yards.
The defense, however, was the lone highlight of the night.
“The defense played a lot better tonight,” Coach Mitchell noted, comparing that effort to last week.
That defense included interceptions by Alder and sophomore defensive back Calogero “Ro” DiCamillo and a fumble recovery by senior linebacker Clayton Jones, who snagged an airborne loose ball in the third quarter and ran 28 yards into the end zone for the Wranglers’ lone touchdown for the night. A team tackle by senior linemen Wyatt Grantham and Robbie Conley caused that fumble.
Senior Michael Flinn, who led the Wranglers in tackles last year, had nine tackles (six solos) to lead the Wranglers again. Alder’s eight tackles (four solos), Clay Watson’s six and Jones’ five also contributed as leaders of the defense. Even though Safford scored 36 points, one of those touchdowns came against the Wranglers’ offense on a fumble and another 22 points were scored after converting a Wrangler fumble into a short-scoring drive.
Hopefully, the Wranglers can correct the fumblitis when they take the field at home against Paradise Honors Friday night.
The Panthers opened their season with a 59-8 loss to Gilbert Christian and a similar 69-14 setback to Coolidge. That start followed their 3-7 record of last year but came close to beating the Wranglers in a 38-30 battle.
Senior running back Nathaniel Smith (48) and sophomore quarterback Trey Hermann (4) are expected to carry the Panthers’ emphasized ground attack. Smith rushed for more than 2,000 yards last year (217 yards on 43 carries against the Wranglers). He was limited to just 51 and 43 yards rushing in the Panthers’ first two games this season.
If the Wranglers can keep him corralled and the offense can finally kick into gear, the Wranglers should be able to record its first victory of the season Friday night.
Kick-off time is scheduled for 7 p.m.