With their playoff hopes ended following a two-game losing streak to a pair of Grand Canyon Region rivals, the No. 21 Flagstaff Eagles will look to finish the season with seven wins for the first time since 2012.
And the Eagles will do so as they hope to continue the recent dominance Flagstaff has exacted over crosstown rival Coconino. With wins in 10 of the past 12 years, Flagstaff has taken a 26-22 lead as the rivalry turns 50 next year.
Better yet for the Eagles, they will play the No. 35 Panthers (1-8, 0-5 Grand Canyon) with much of their injured core returning in the season finale.
“Last game here, we have got everybody back. Everett (Evangelesta) is back, Lucas (Salcido) is back,” said Eagles co-head coach Paul Wolf. “If we had those guys in the past, who knows what would have happened.”
Salcido, Flagstaff’s leading rusher for many of the team’s games, and Evangelesta, the team’s sacks leader, each missed recent weeks with shoulder injuries. Flagstaff felt their absence, with the Eagles managing just 22 points combined in the last two games.
“Really pumped, I didn’t think I would be back honestly. It’s cool to just be back,” Salcido said. "It was torture watching everything kind of blow up.”
While Salcido missed last week, other running back injuries led to the team diving into junior varsity for options. Josh Morrow and Dillon Joseph suffered injuries to force them out of play as well, but Flagstaff believes everyone escaped Prescott without anything major.
With Coconino struggling to contain some of its region opponents in recent weeks, a full-strength offense for Flagstaff could bode well for the Eagles.
Averaging 27.9 points per game, with 44-plus point performances three times this year, Flagstaff will look to bounce back against Coconino.
After holding five of their first six opponents under 25 points, the Panthers conceded 140 of their 275 total points allowed in the past three weeks.
The struggles against Bradshaw Mountain (49 points), Prescott (35) and Mingus Union (56) raised Coconino’s points-allowed average to 30.5 points per game. The two schools enter Friday with their greatest difference in record since the 2006 season, when Flagstaff entered the season finale at 7-3 and Coconino came in at 2-7.
Defensively, Evangelesta’s return may pose problems for a Coconino offense that has been unable to replicate its success in its season opener. Scoring 21 against the Page Sand Devils, who finished the regular season at 8-2 last week with a 3A North Region title, the Panthers haven’t cracked the 20-point mark again this year.
Despite missing multiple weeks with his shoulder injury, Evangelesta remains fifth in 4A with nine sacks this season, with Flagstaff’s school record of 12.5 sacks in a season still slightly within reach in his final high school game.
“I'm ecstatic, it is really a dream come true because I never thought I’d play again on this field with pads,” Evangelesta said. “I thought I’d just be standing here to cheer on my team. It’s been really cool to come back and play with them.”