While most of Southern Arizona's high school football scene began the abbreviated high school football season in early November, the Empire Ravens were hit with COVID-19 positive tests and cancelations that cut its season even shorter.
Before Friday night, Empire was one of only two Southern Arizona teams besides Nogales to not play a football game. The uncertainty of future games forced Empire to not waste its possibly only chance to honor its senior football players before the Ravens' season opener against Sabino in Vail.
The Senior Night smiles before Empire's home opener would be short-lived, as Sabino routed the Ravens 61-7. The Sabercats have now won all seven games in the head-to-head history with Empire.
Sabino head coach Ryan McBrayer on the Sabercats’ 61-7 win over Empire and Derek Sanchez’s 3-TD performance: pic.twitter.com/4fPtReIkue— High School Sports (@HSTucson) November 21, 2020
"The one thing about tonight was to just get out on the field and compete," said Sabino head coach Ryan McBrayer. "Empire did a great job getting through the struggles of quarantine, and our guys came out and competed. I was proud of out first-string guys, second-string guys, all the way until the end. Everyone represented Sabino well."
Sabino jumped out to a quick 13-0 lead in the first quarter following AJ Skaggs' 38-yard touchdown pass to Derek Sanchez, and Kenneth Blackman's 19-yard run just plays after the Sabercats recovered a muffed kick return.
AJ Skaggs ➡️ Derek Sanchez Sabino gets on the board with a 38-yard touchdown. Sabercats lead Empire 6-0 with just under 9 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Sabino recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff. pic.twitter.com/e9rAYEAe6N— High School Sports (@HSTucson) November 21, 2020
"AJ is a great quarterback," said Sanchez. "He can throw that ball up and I can go get it for him. He throws that ball up to anybody, we're gonna come down with it."
Just when Empire received a spark of momentum with a fumble recovery on the goal line to prevent Sabino from scoring, the Sabercats retook possession and Skaggs found Cade Swanson for a 21-yard touchdown to give Sabino a 20-0 lead.
On the following drive, Sanchez intercepted Empire quarterback Jaden Magnusson for a touchdown to give Sabino a comfortable 27-0 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Ravens didn't fold.
Empire's best offensive drive of the night resulted in a five-yard touchdown pass from Magnusson to Yani Brown in the second quarter, the first points of the 2020 season, to cut the lead 34-7. Just plays before the score, Magnusson completed a much-needed pass to Dominic Bacardo on fourth down, followed by a Hyrum Tanner catch to set Empire inside the red zone.
"We knew it was going to be a battle. ... Yani Brown is a stud and we knew our hands were going to be full with him," McBrayer said.
On the ensuing kickoff, Sanchez completed the hat trick with a kickoff return for a touchdown. Sabino took a 47-7 lead at halftime and never looked back. That was Sanchez's first-ever game with an offensive, defensive and special teams touchdown.
"We had energy on offense, defense, special teams," Sanchez said. "We just kept it 100 the whole game."
In last week's thriller against east-side rival Sahuaro, Sanchez scored two touchdowns, including the game-winner, in the final 53 seconds of play to complete the comeback for Sabino.
For the first time in his football career, Sabino’s Derek Sanchez scored a touchdown on offense, defense and special teams. Sabercats routed Empire 61-7. pic.twitter.com/vUeRuexKq3— High School Sports (@HSTucson) November 21, 2020
"He's gonna let me know, he likes to talk about it. I'm sure I'll be hearing about all of his touchdowns the whole week," McBrayer joked. "He had a great game and I'm very proud of him."
In the seven-game series history which dates back to 2011, Sabino has outscored Empire 411-53.
Sabino moved to 2-0 on the season; Empire falls to 0-1. Sabino is scheduled to face Walden Grove at home next Saturday at noon. Empire will travel to Amphitheater next Friday night.