Aztec falls short in comeback bid to St. Pius in final non-district battle
RIO RANCHO — The St. Pius Sartans football team overcame a third quarter deficit and outlasted the Aztec Tigers Saturday in a final non-district game for both teams in a 27-24 slugfest at Community Stadium in Rio Rancho.
The Sartans, trailing 18-14 late in the third quarter after a 20-yard touchdown grab by Tristen McNeal gave the Tigers the lead, took command later in the game thanks to quarterback Alejandro Sapien and one of his three touchdown passes on the night.
Sapien's 7-yard scoring strike to Dominic Esparza gave the Sartans a 21-18 lead which they'd never relinquish on their way to a third straight victory.
Sapien threw his first touchdown late in the first quarter after both teams exchanged opening drives which resulted in punts.
Sapien found Chris Coash for a 19-yard touchdown pass with 5 minutes remaining in the first quarter, then extended their lead early in the second quarter when running back Marco Ybarra scored from 8 yards out to give the Sartans an early 14-0 lead.
The Tigers bounced back before halftime, eventually taking the lead in the third quarter after scoring 18 unanswered points.
Landan Frost threw a 5-yard touchdown pass to Marcquis Henry to narrow the Sartans lead before Frost's 10-yard touchdown pass to Tristen McNeal got the Tigers within 2 points of the lead.
On both Tigers touchdowns in the first half, the extra point attempt proved unsuccessful, with the Sartans leading 14-12 at the half.
"The mistakes in the kicking game are on me, that's my fault and we have to fix that," said Tigers coach Eric Stovall.
The Tigers came out strong in the third quarter. McNeal's second touchdown catch of the game put Aztec in front 18-14 after another missed attempt on an extra point.
"He's just an incredible athlete," Stovall said of McNeal, who's been a big part of the Tigers offense this season. "He plays with a leadership and an attitude that is just remarkable."
The Sartans, however, fought back after both teams traded possessions in the third quarter. Sapien's scoring pass to Esparza gave St. Pius a 21-18 lead in a game that featured momentum swings on both sides.
"Defensively, we played very well I thought in limiting what they could do," Stovall said. "We made some good adjustments and played well against a very good, well-coached team."
Sapien and Coash teamed up again with eight minutes remaining in the fourth quarter for a scoring connection, this time from 23 yards out to pad the lead to two scores and a 27-18 lead.
The Tigers, again, wouldn't go down without a fight. In the final three minutes, Aztec narrowed the gap after a Zane Markel touchdown catch from Frost got them within a touchdown. Again, the PAT attempt failed leaving the Sartans with a 3 point lead.
The Tigers attempted an onside kick, which was recovered by Coash at the 42-yard line, allowing the Sartans to run out the clock and preserve the win.
St. Pius (4-2), which opened the season losing two of their first three games, now are in the midst of a three-game win streak as they prepare to face Bernalillo on the road to kick off their district season.
Aztec falls to 1-5 on the season, having lost four straight with their lone win coming in week two of the season at home over Montezuma-Cortez. They'll open the District 1-4A campaign on the road Friday night at Shiprock.
The race for the district title will be an intense one, with Kirtland Central finding their stride after a 63-14 rout over Gallup on Friday night while Bloomfield suffered their first loss of the season on the road at Valencia 34-21.
"The parity in our district is very even," Stovall said. "Bloomfield has just the one loss and Kirtland Central is very talented. We can play with anyone in the district and I think based on this game, we have a real measuring stick as to how we can compete in the district."
Steve Bortstein can be reached via email at SBortstein@Gannett.com, via Twitter @DTSBortstein or on the phone at (505) 635-2680