WILLCOX — A stirring Willcox Cowboys football comeback was stymied by a final gift to their Pima opponents as the Roughriders collected the 28-24 prize victory in Friday night high school football.

The host Cowboys (1-1) overcame a 22-12 halftime deficit with two fourth-quarter scores, only to muff a punt with three minutes to go and hand Pima (1-1) the golden opportunity it needed to regain the momentum and grab the victory.

“It was tough to lose because we made it tough,” Willcox head coach Alonzo Highsmith said. “We didn’t do what we should have done early and it cost us.”

Pima was set up at the Willcox 15-yard line after recovering a fumbled punt snap to back-up punter Chuy Hernandez. First-string punter Ote Allsup was hurt on third down, setting up a hurried fourth-down punt formation.

Hernandez raced to fall on the fumble but was beaten to the loose ball. Pima’s Caleb Barlow ran for 14 yards to set up quarterback Teddy Rector’s game-winning 1-yard score with 2:51 remaining. Pima survived one last Willcox drive that died on a Caden Hall fourth-down incomplete pass just past midfield with 30 seconds left.

“I thought that both of us fought hard, and it’s too bad somebody had to lose the game,” Pima head coach John Bryant said.

Barlow got the first touchdown in the game in less than a minute on a 55-yard scamper down the right sideline.

Willcox answered early in the second quarter as defensive tackle Jonathan Garcia scooped up Rector’s fumble and rumbled 20 yards for the score to draw to within 8-6.

Pima answered five minutes later as Rector connected with Kaleb Blair on a 40-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-6.

“It’s hard to come out flat and win,” Highsmith said. “It’s as simple as that. You don’t tackle well in the first half, (it will cost you).”

The momentum seesawed back to the Cowboys, who answered with a 35-yard touchdown pass from Hall to sophomore Rico Lunt with 40 seconds left in the first half.

Pima seized the momentum yet again in what felt like a huge letdown by the Cowboys, who couldn’t keep the Roughriders out of the end zone in the final 40 seconds of the first half, despite pinning them back at their own 40-yard line to start the drive. Barlow broke loose for a 19-yard run, and Blair followed with a zig-zagging 49-yard scamper to the goal line as the final seconds ticked off the first-half clock to make it 22-12 after two periods.

Pima outgained Willcox 234 yards to 48 to overcome three first-half fumbles and gain the 10-point lead.

The host Cowboys failed to wilt, overcoming a sluggish third quarter by scoring two fourth-quarter touchdowns for the second consecutive game, matching what they did to win an overtime opener at Lordsburg, N.M. However, after quarterback Hall’s second consecutive 2-yard scoring run made it 24-22 for Willcox, the Cowboys failed to run out the clock and gifted the muffed punt that decided the game in favor of Pima.

The Cowboys outgained Pima, 158-42, in the second half to spark the comeback and nearly steal the win. Junior tailback Ote Allsup rushed for 59 of his 70 yards in the second half, Hall rushed for 49 and threw for 97 yards, with junior receiver Cael Debaun accounting for 41 of those yards and Lunt for 56. The Cowboys also converted an onside kick in their comeback and intercepted Rector once to stifle the Roughriders until their final possession.

“They gave the ball to us numerous times and we couldn’t capitalize. We just have to go regroup,” Highsmith said. “It’s tough, but we’ll be all right.”

Willcox will host Morenci (1-1) on Thursday. Morenci is coming off a 49-7 loss to Benson last Friday. The game is moving to Thursday to accommodate the visiting Wildcats coach, who was asked to be at a teacher-of-the-year presentation Friday in Prescott.

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