The word of the night was "perseverance."
Everyone on the Chaparral football team knew the "how" and "why" Friday night's Division II state semifinal turned from a potential runaway into a teeth-clencher.
The "who" was all that mattered after a second half of wild score changes, because after Davonte Neal's last-minute interception at the Chaparral goalline ended Peoria Centennial's final drive in Chaparral's 31-30 victory.
It's the Firebirds who are back in the saddle with a chance to win a third consecutive state championship next Saturday night against Vail Cienega at Sun Devil Stadium.
How the No. 1-seed Firebirds got there? That's a swerving story.
"We just had to keep fighting," Chaparral defensive lineman Dylan Cozens said.
This rematch of last year's 5A Division II state championship game was on the verge of a TKO by halftime. Chaparral took full advantage of Centennial failing to convert a couple fourth-down attempts, stuffed the Coyotes' rushing attack and blocked a punt that turned into a short touchdown drive.
Led by the defense and special teams, Jake Roh's touchdown catch from Connor Brewer and Lucas Petrullo's 1-yard plunge preceded a 31-yard field goal by Dylan Audsley that made it 17-0 in favor of Chaparral at intermission.
The motor was revving up on what was headed for a runaway.
And then, it wasn't.
The two teams essentially switched roles after halftime. Chaparral punted twice and committed a turnover in three third-quarter possessions. Meanwhile, Centennial Troy Hawthorne made a terrific sliding catch for a 23-yard touchdown to get Centennial on the board.
After a Firebirds punt, Jalen Ortiz's big night got bigger with a 52-yard catch-and-run on a blown coverage and it was 17-14 Chaparral.
"We did a tremendous job of making a move and not putting our heads down," Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. "We could have packed it in but that's not in these kids' minds."
The thorough about-face continued. Chaparral converted a much-needed third-and-16 on the ensuing possesion, but Neal fumbled at the end of the play and Ortiz picked it up and ran 56 yards the other way for a 21-17 Centennial lead after three quarters.
Suddenly cruising, however, the Coyotes crashed. A high punt snap led to another special teams miscue and it gave Chaparral the ball inside the Centennial 10-yard line to begin the fourth. The Firebirds cashed in with Petrullo's second touchdown run of the game.
On the next play, another busted coverage on a double-move gave Centennial the lead back at 28-24, an 80-yard catch-and-run from Sanchez to Tyler Beenau.
"There was a lot of frustration and we had to get back up, get back up," Chaparral linebacker Cody Ippolito said.
Unable to run the ball in the third quarter, the Firebirds did it well enough in the fourth to help quarterback Connor Brewer in third-down situations, as did Centennial when it left Roh wide open for 26 yards on third-and-16. Petrullo capped that quick drive with his third touchdown run and a 31-28 lead with under five minutes left.
"We had some mental errors and letdowns, and we needed to relax," said Roh, who caught six passes for 138 yards. "Being intense and wound up wasn't going to work."
Sanchez threw for 385 yards against Chaparral's defense, despite the early struggles and absorbing a handful of vicious hits in the pocket. When a penalty helped give Centennial a shorter field, he and Ortiz helped Centennial march down the field one last time.
The Coyotes converted on third down with a 19-yard pass down the middle, and, at Chaparral's 15 with a minute remaining, it was Ortiz who lofted another rainbow toward the end zone towards an open Sanchez, who'd gotten five yards behind Neal.
But the ball was underthrown and Neal came down with the interception at the goal line. Chaparral ran three plays, then Neal ran around on fourth down and into the end zone for a safety as the clock expired for that final margin.
"He's the best player in the state," Ippolito said.
Ortiz had 99 yards receiving, 61 yards rushing and the fumble return for a touchdown for Centennial. Beenau had 124 yards receiving but the Coyotes had no success running the ball.
A beaten-up Brewer threw for 184 yards while Neal was far more involved offensively than he'd been the past several weeks. Operating as a running back and as quarterback in Wildcat formations, he had 81 yards rushing, 30 yards receiving and the touchdown, but Centennial's coverage on special teams clamped down on his kick return prowess.
The lead long frittered away and eventually rescued, the Firebirds celebrated the part of a team that knew its season is still alive through fortune and fortitude.
"It was about perseverance," Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle said. "It's why I'm proud of this team. We blew a 17-point lead and could have tanked it. But we came back again and again. That's what our program is all about."