By: Jason Digos Jr.
Without senior starting quarterback Mason Crossland, 4A #2 seed Gilbert Higley (10-1) had to battle from the ropes against #7 Glendale Cactus (7-4) who were looking to avenge their regular season loss to earn a place in the 4A semi-finals.
Higley’s junior running back Draycen Hall has been an absolute machine for the Knights all season, and he started the night off with a bang, taking the opening kickoff back for a 99 yard score.
The Cobras were stunned and blown out of the game early against Higley in their regular season matchup, but tonight they came to play despite giving up the quick return score to start. Quarterback Mahal Lee and running back Damaria Norris traded score for score with Hall and the Knights in the first half. At the half, Higley held a slim 28-20 lead.
Not having Crossland behind center caused some sputters in the usually formidable Higley air attack for parts of the night, which allowed Cactus to stay within striking distance.
Despite the lack of big plays through the air, junior backup QB Jacob Rowland stayed efficient, completing 70 percent of his throws for 216 yards and two scores to receiver Chris Crescione and Hall once again was the home run hitter for the Knights offense.
Knights Head Coach Eddy Zubey and offensive coordinator Joseph Ortiz utilized their athlete Hall as a receiver and behind center in Wildcat sets. The junior eventually tallied 313 all-purpose yards on the night, it is the sixth time he has racked up 300+ all-purpose yards on the year!
Credit has to be given to Cactus Head Coach Larry Fetkenhier and his staff and players for making their adjustments to pin the Knights on the ropes for most of the evening.
Unlike the two teams first matchup, the Cobras were able to keep balance in their offense this time around with 161 yards in the air from the arm of quarterback Mahal Lee and 220 rushing yards and 3 touchdowns via Damaria Norris.
However, a few special teams errors early and then two critical turnovers late in the game took away opportunities for the Cobras to tie up the game or ultimately leave Gilbert with the upset.
Next Friday night, the Higley Knights will host the #6 Tucson Catalina Foothills (def. #3 Sunrise Mountain 52-49) in the 4A state semi finals at nearby Williams Field High School.
It is the Knights first visit to the playoff semi-finals since 2007 under Jim Beall. The Knights lost that matchup to the eventual 2007 4A Division II state champ Notre Dame Prep, 15-14.