Postseason glory has been a very long time coming for the Page High football program, which hosts Pusch Ridge Christian Academy (Tucson) Friday for a first-round 3A Conference playoff game.
The Sand Devils enter as the No. 4 seed and are enjoying a six-game winning streak. They will be playing at home in the postseason for the first time in 23 years, and will be seeking their first playoff win in more than three decades.
Page has set a season mark for scoring with its 49.4 points a game, has limited opponents to 12 points on average and has the 13-seed at home. But unlike Page’s 3A North Region rivals, Pusch Ridge will be no pushover.
The Lions (5-5) have played in two state championship games in the past three years. Last season’s team was 13-0 before falling in the 3A title game to Casteel (Queen Creek), and the 2015 squad won in Division IV on another 13-1 mark.
“They’re extremely well-coached,” said second-year Sand Devils head coach Mitchell Stephens. “Very fundamentally sound. I think they’re a much better team than where they’re seeded.”
Pusch Ridge has a 1,104-yard rusher in sophomore Evan Lovett, averaging 10.2 yards per carry with 13 touchdowns.
“Like us, they base their offense on the run game and have multiple weapons in the backfield,” Stephens said. “They’re very quick on defense.”
The teams’ only common opponent was Snowflake, the No. 3 seed in 3A. Snowflake beat Page 50-28 Sept. 7 in the White Mountains, then defeated Pusch Ridge 21-7 in Tucson the next week.
Page could finish the postseason with two 1,000-yard rushers. Senior Kele Meredith has run for 1,696 yards and 18 touchdowns, and quarterback Robert Smith has 857 yards and 10 scores. Meredith, who has rolled up 4,355 career yards in three years, has set his sights on 2,000 yards for ’18.
On the other side of the ball, the Sand Devil defense seemed to gain strength as the season wore on. Nose tackle Hayden Gracia, the defense’s 5-foot-4 spark plug, and defensive end Cheyenne Richardson have helped pressure quarterbacks into 23 interceptions -- six of which were returned for touchdowns.
Since their only loss of the season, the Sand Devils have allowed 28 total points in six games. They recorded two safeties in last week’s 54-0 win over Monument Valley, created when the Mustangs’ offensive line was pushed into the end zone on a tackle for loss and a sack.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
History will not be on the Sand Devils’ side.
Page last hosted a playoff game in 1995, earning it on an 8-2 overall record including a 4-1 mark in the Grand Canyon Region. This was before power points established the brackets, and the AIA used a formula that placed Page at No. 4 in Class 4A.
“It was a great accomplishment for us, with just 28 to 30 players,” former player Ryan Tkalcevic said. “We were a stout team.”
But Peoria, coming off a share of the Class 4A championship in 1994, brought two or three buses north and won 42-3.
A large home audience could only conclude that just a few Sand Devils would be able to match up physically with the bruisers in white and gold. One was Tkalcevic, who went on to play at Northern Arizona University and later became Page’s athletic director.
“We saw them and said to ourselves, ‘Okay, how do we play this?'” said Tkalcevic, now assistant principal and athletic director at Catalina Foothills in Tucson. “Peoria has a great history of football.”
Peoria capitalized on Page turnovers and pulled away in the second half, then wore down the smaller Sand Devils. The next fall at NAU, Tkalcevic met up with Peoria twins Tony and Neil Walker, a cornerback and wide receiver, among incoming freshmen Lumberjack players.
“They were two of my first friends at NAU,” Tkalcevic said.
Page did not qualify for another state tournament for 15 years, when the 2010 team lost 49-0 to Cactus in the first round. Since then, Page is 0-4 in the playoffs in D-IV and 3A, including last year’s 34-14 loss at Benjamin Franklin (Queen Creek).
Tkalcevic’s father, John, was an assistant coach on the last Page team to win in the postseason. He worked on the staff of coach Jim Burton, whose teams were 47-29-1 from 1981-87.