PRESCOTT VALLEY - The seniors on the 2010 Bagdad High School football team have had quite a run as the four-time defending Class 1A West Region champions.
But when it comes to the 1A state playoffs, one big stalwart program has consistently stood in its way: Joseph City.
For the third time in four years on Saturday night, the Sultans succumbed to the Wildcats in the postseason, falling 28-17 in the 1A semifinals at Bob Pavlich Field.
Defending 1A champ Joseph City (10-1 overall) will move on to face Heber Mogollon, 54-22 victors in the Saturday's other semifinal, for the 1A state title next Saturday night at 7, also at Bradshaw Mountain High School's home field. The game will be a rematch of last year's final, which the Wildcats won 34-14. Joe City's only loss this season came to Mogollon, 40-28, on the road Oct. 15.
The Sultans finish their year with a 7-3 overall record, having lost twice to Joe City (including the season opener) and once to Mogollon Oct. 1.
Mogollon defeated Bagdad in the semifinals last year, but it was Joseph City that knocked out the Sultans in the quarterfinals the previous twopostseasons.
"We have nine seniors - three of them have started since their freshman year, and seven have been starters the past three years," Bagdad coach Danny Corbin said. "These kids knew what they had to do to get to the next level. Their play didn't take it away, their mistakes took it away."
On Friday, there was clearly a revenge factor for Bagdad, which played as the host team. But the Sultans simply could not contain Joseph City's do-everything running back Remington Baldwin.
The lightning-quick Baldwin rushed for 228 yards on 29 carries, and scored four touchdowns, including two in the first quarter that would later comeback to haunt the Sultans. Bagdad jumped out to an early 7-0 lead on quarterback Zachary Loveall's 18-yard TD run with 7:58 to go in the first. But Baldwin immediately paid back the Sultans with a 73-yard return for a score on the ensuing kickoff.
After bobbling the ball on the far left sideline near Bagdad's 27-yard line, Baldwin scooped up the pigskin and raced virtually untouched to the endzone.
Baldwin followed up that sterling jaunt with another one little more than 2 minutes later from scrimmage. He needed only the first play on Joe City's second drive to scamper 59 yards - once again down the left sideline - to put the Wildcats ahead 16-7 after his club's second straight 2-point conversion.
Despite the deflating series of events, Joe City did not take all of the air out of Bagdad's balloon.
The Sultans ended the first half with 10 unanswered points and entered the break with a slim 17-16 edge.
Sophomore kicker Damian Jauregui's 39-yard field goal with 14 seconds left in the first quarter gave Bagdad some life. But when the Sultans scored the go-ahead TD on a 35-yard strike from Loveall to tailback Johnny Irwin after a Baldwin fumble, the momentum appeared to be swinging their way with 8 minutes left in the second period.
In the second half, the Joe City defense buckled down and shut out a solid, balanced Bagdad offense.
"Joe City has the best coach (John Bryant) in 1A football - he makes great second-half adjustments," Loveall said. "Our offense fought, but in the end we made a couple key mistakes."
The Sultans got the ball first in the third quarter and promptly marched down the field before having to settle for a field goal at the 21-yard line.
But Jauregi didn't have quite the distance to convert a 35-yarder and Joe City made Bagdad pay.
On their ensuing drive, the Wildcats converted two big fourth downs on a time-consuming 14-play drive, one that was aided by a questionable pass-interference call.
Inside of a minute left in the third quarter on a second-and-16 from the
Bagdad 32, Joe City quarterback Tracy Poudrier threw a bullet to Baldwin over the middle between two Sultans defenders for a TD, and the Wildcats took the lead for good, up 22-17.
Bagdad had its chances to claw back, but an interception on its ensuing drive on a tipped ball near the Wildcats' 20-yard line seemed to snuff out the upset bid. Baldwin later scored on a 32-yard TD run to ice the game.
"Our goal was to limit the mistakes and try to keep the ball in our possession and run out the clock," Loveall said. "Anytime Baldwin gets the ball, he has a chance of breaking the long one."