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Originally published Friday, October 13, 2017 at 06:02a.m.

Mayer’s football program has regained its former swagger under coach Mike Gutierrez in 2017, but the true test comes tonight when the unbeaten Wildcats play host to undefeated 1A state power and rival Bagdad at Mathern Field in Spring Valley.

The two 1A West leaders from opposite ends of Yavapai County will decide who captures the region title at 7 p.m., as 1A No. 4-ranked Mayer (8-0 overall, 4-0 West) and defending state champion/No. 2-rated Bagdad (8-0, 4-0) clash with playoff seedings hanging in the balance.

“They’re excited to be undefeated, but we’re looking forward to the Bagdad game tomorrow night,” said Gutierrez, Mayer’s second-year lead mentor, Thursday afternoon. “We’re not doing anything special. We’re hoping we get a big crowd, because usually Bagdad will bring a few people with them. There should be pretty good attendance for a 1A game.”

Defending region champ Bagdad is riding a 19-game winning streak dating back to the beginning of the 2016 season. The Sultans’ last loss came Nov. 7, 2015, against Pima in the state semifinals.

“We’ve definitely been going on the ‘Tradition Never Graduates’ [mantra],” Bagdad coach Dalton Mills said. “We don’t have the depth we had last year, which has brought us back to the pack a little bit, but the kids are continuing on with the [winning] tradition.”

IN MEMORIAM

In its regular-season finale on Senior Night, Mayer will again play in honor of junior wideout/defensive end Cody Colquitt, who died in a single-vehicle accident Sept. 22, mere hours before the Wildcats faced Valley Lutheran.

“It’s really become a focus for all of us just to play for him,” Mayer senior fullback/co-captain Dacodah Jensen said. “We’ve been trying to better ourselves because of the accident and all of that. We’ve definitely had some support from our community and the school and everything.”

The Wildcats painted Colquitt’s No. 10 in the middle of their field and placed his uniform number on their helmets to memorialize the likeable young man.

“It was tough,” Gutierrez said of the team coming to terms with Colquitt’s passing. “Not even football related, he was just a good kid. He was friends with everyone. But the kids are getting through it. They’re strong, and they’re going to play for Cody the rest of the year. So, we are healing.”

Bagdad will wear helmet stickers with No. 10 on them, too.

Mills said “it gives me chills even talking about it [Colquitt’s death]” and that “we’ve been pretty supportive of them [Wildcats’ team]” during a trying time.

Sultans senior quarterback Israel Loveall said Colquitt’s passing “definitely made an impact on us” and “our hearts go out to that family.” Fifteen or 16 Bagdad players attended Colquitt’s funeral, he added.

PLAYOFF IMPLICATIONS

Only the Top 12 teams in 1A qualify for the state tournament, which opens with the first round Oct. 21, followed by the quarterfinals Oct. 28, the semifinals Nov. 4 and the championship Nov. 10.

Each of the Top 4 qualifiers earn a first-round bye. If Mayer upsets Bagdad, the Wildcats would garner one of the first four seeds, perhaps as high as 2 or 3. If the Wildcats lose, they might remain at the 4-spot.

“We’d get to host a second-round playoff game, but it definitely isn’t going to make or break our season [if we lose to Bagdad],” Gutierrez said.

A Bagdad victory would most likely secure its position at No. 2. Mogollon, which has played a difficult schedule, holds the No. 1 ranking with a 6-0 mark and visits No. 10 Joe City (5-2) tonight. No. 3 Superior is 6-1 and hosts NFL Yet (1-6). Loveall said of tonight’s game that his team “staying high in the rankings” is more important than the rivalry.

“We’ve always had good competition with Mayer, and they will bring their best,” Loveall added. “I’ve lost a total of three games in my career here. I’m trying to get the team ready and get the win.”

Last season, Mayer finished 6-4 overall and 4-1 in region, losing to Hayden in the first round of the playoffs at home. On Sept. 23, 2016, the Wildcats succumbed at Bagdad, 89-18, a loss that’s remained stuck in their craw.

“It’s definitely going to be a fun game – we’re going to do pretty good in this game,” Jensen said. “We talk a tiny bit [about redemption].”

IMPACT PLAYERS

Gutierrez said Mayer has improved “100 percent” from last fall. Senior quarterback Dylan Wilhide and Jensen help lead the Wildcats’ power-running offense. Wilhide and Jensen have played football together since elementary school, and they’ve built a connection over the past 12 years.

Jensen has rushed for a team-high 1,046 yards and 28 TDs. Dade Herbert (742 yards, nine TDs) and Wilhide (697 yards, 14 TDs) follow.

“He’s got a lot better from last year, just maturity-wise,” Gutierrez said of Wilhide, who’s thrown for 885 yards, 15 TDs and one interception. “He can throw the ball well, but he also has the option that a lot of quarterbacks don’t have. When the pocket breaks down and nothing’s there, he can take off. He has the speed and agility [to run the ball].”

Added Mills, “This is the best QB they’ve had since 2008. He does a lot with his feet. Dylan is one of the Top 4 or 5 QBs in 1A.”

Bagdad graduated six starters on offense and six starters on defense from its 2016 state-title team, but the unit has remained sturdy behind state and national record-shattering senior quarterback Israel Loveall and wideout/defensive back Scott Finnerty.

“We’re pretty fortunate in that we might have the best QB in 8-man with Israel,” Mills said. “He quietly goes about his business.”

This fall, Loveall has set a new national high-school record for career TD passes in the 8-man game with 151 and counting, surpassing the previous mark of 137. He also holds state records for most career passing yards with 7,000-plus (6,000 yards was previous best) as well as most TD passes thrown in a season with 59.

Loveall has thrown for 2,182 yards and 42 TDs with only three interceptions in 2017. Finnerty has 52 catches for 1,531 yards.

“This season’s been incredible,” Loveall said. “I’m surprised at how we’ve been able to perform.”

Mills compares Loveall and Finnerty to “Batman and Robin,” as Finnerty has hauled in an 8-man single-season record 30 TD catches, including seven against Salome Sept. 29, this fall. Finnerty’s most memorable catch was his Hail Mary reception as time expired at state runner-up Williams Sept. 1, which handed Bagdad a 28-24 win.

“Scott is a big-time player,” Loveall said. “I knew what he could do.”

Gutierrez has to decide whether his defensive backs need to double-team Finnerty.

“His main weapon is Scott Finnerty,” Gutierrez said of Loveall. “The offense runs through Israel. The success comes from him being the quarterback – having the experience, the maturity and playing that position for so long. We definitely have to keep our eye on him.”

Which team wins tonight’s contest should hinge on whether Mayer can sustain drives with its physical ground game. The Wildcats want to grind the clock and keep the ball out of the hands of Sultans’ potent spread-option offense. Bagdad outscored the opposition by a combined 521-168 in its eight games. Mayer tallied a similar margin of 531-112.

“They like to throw the ball, although it seems like Israel’s running it more this year [team-best 539 yards total], so we’ve got to watch him running out of the backfield,” Gutierrez said. “It’s no secret – we like to run the ball. When you run the ball, time goes off the clock. So, we would definitely like to manage the game that way.”

Follow Doug Cook on Twitter @dougout_dc. Reach him at 928-445-3333 ext. 2039, or via email at dcook@prescottaz.com.

2017 Results for 1A Rivals Bagdad and Mayer

No. 2 BAGDAD (8-0, 4-0)

Date Opponent Result

8/18 at Valley Union 58-12, W

8/25 J. Springs (Calif.) 56-24, W

9/1 at Williams 28-24, W

9/8 San Pasqual 71-24, W

9/16 at Anthem Prep 86-0, W

9/22 at NFL Yet 68-22, W

9/29 Salome 78-40, W

10/6 Valley Lutheran 76-22, W

10/13 at Mayer ????????

Bagdad outscored its opponents 521-168

No. 4 MAYER (8-0, 4-0)

Date Opponent Result

8/18 Greyhills 56-0, W

8/25 at St. David 80-14, W

9/1 at El Capitan 74-26, W

9/8 Fredonia 66-6, W

9/15 at Salome 36-14, W

9/22 at Valley Luth. 66-28, W

9/29 Anthem Prep 75-16, W

10/6 San Pasqual 78-8, W

10/13 Bagdad ????????

Mayer outscored its opponents 531-112

Games in bold indicate common opponent