The stakes continue to be high for a Coconino Panthers football team that went from being a bottom-feeder to a program that's ranked No. 15 in the 4A Conference.
The Panthers, who have fallen short in some of the biggest situations this season had to offer, now have a chance to hold on to the city trophy for a second straight year when they face the Flagstaff Eagles on Friday.
Adding to the pressure of the 50th annual crosstown rivalry game is the fact that it's going to be played in Coconino's Cromer Stadium after 40 years.
Panthers head coach Mike Moran doesn't know the formula for preparing his team for the emotional game, but he suspects that after the season his players have had, they will be ready for another big moment.
“It’s huge, and it’s such an honor for me and the players," Moran said Wednesday. "They’ve turned our program around and the kids are committed to this.”
Although Coconino (6-3, 3-2 Grand Canyon Region) brought success back to the gridiron after the program failed to surpass the .500 record mark since the 2012 season, the team fell short in a few of the most meaningful games this year.
The Panthers, who are 3-1 at home, have won all but one game this year when taking a lead into halftime. Meanwhile, they are 0-2 when trailing at the break.
“We’ve been out ahead of them, but the three biggest ones we didn’t finish," Moran said, noting losses to region foes Bradshaw Mountain and Prescott and last week's heartbreaking 32-21 defeat on the road to Cactus that drastically limited their chances of making the postseason.
Bradshaw handed Coconino its only home loss of the year after holding a 13-7 advantage over the Panthers at halftime. The next week, Coconino trailed 21-6 at the half against Prescott and failed to mount a comeback, dropping back-to-back games for the first and only time this season so far. Cactus was the only team to trail Coconino at halftime and rally back for a win.
Flagstaff (3-6, 2-3 Grand Canyon) has struggled to close out tight contests all year and make its way back from deficits. Coconino, which has only won two crosstown meetings in the last 10 years, has been mostly a first-half team all season, falling flat in the third quarter and managing the fourth.
The Panthers head into Friday averaging 26.6 first-half points, while the Eagles enter the crosstown match-up with an opening half clip of just over 11 points.
Despite looking as the favorite to win, Coconino knows it'll have stop Eagles running back Luis Jaramillo, who has recorded 1,099 total rushing yards so far.
“All our kids know him and respect him and know his ability, and obviously that’s going to be a big part of what we want to do, and they know that," Moran said of trying to shut down Jaramillo. "And we know who they are going to focus in on as well.”
That would be running back Zach Bennett.
Bennett, a sophomore like Jaramillo, has 1,147 yards rushing for Coconino and has been the team's main contributor. The Panthers, however, have eight different players who have tallied touchdowns, with Bennett leading the way at 16.
Meanwhile, Flagstaff, which will be without its starting quarterback for the finale, has nine different players with at least one TD, led by Jaramillo's 18. Coconino, however, has notched 43 trips into the end zone, 10 more than Flagstaff.
But Moran and company know to throw out all the stats and records when it comes to going for all the marbles, especially after Coconino won just its second game of last season in the crosstown meeting.
"I am not sure that it matters who is favored," Moran said. "We just talk about doing our job, playing within ourselves and with the confidence that they've gained throughout the year."
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.