The play call was “Earth and Wind.” The result carried No. 3-seeded Chaparral back to the Division II state championship game for the fourth time in five years.
Facing a second-and-short at its own 29-yard line and clinging to an eight-point advantage late in the fourth quarter, Chaparral handed the ball off to its trusty senior running back, Elijah Castro. Despite playing on an injured left ankle, Castro bounced off a few tackles at the line of scrimmage and hit a hole down the right sideline with nothing but green grass and an end zone in front of him.
Castro’s 71-yard scamper capped off the Firebirds’ 35-20 semifinal victory over upstart-Mesquite on Monday night at Gilbert High School, as the Firebirds held on just long enough to advance to the title game against No. 1-seeded Tucson Salpointe at University of Arizona Stadium on Friday night.
“You have to have a lot of heart to play this game,” said Castro, who finished with 89 yards on the ground. “I love this game, and frankly you never know when it will end. I struggled with the ankle a little bit there in the first half, but when you get in a situation like that at the end, it’s all adrenaline.
“On that play, the holes were open. I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line. I saw green and went for it. I just got out to the sideline, saw the end zone and then lit up with a big smile.”
Castro and his teammates have plenty to smile about, including a superb start in the first half spearheaded by the special teams’ unit.
Chaparral recovered the opening kickoff after it was muffed and turned it into seven quick points, as Malcolm Thomas ran untouched into the end zone for a 30-yard score.
After Mesquite answered back with a 40-yard quarterback keeper by Payton Haslam out of the read-option, the two teams appeared to be headed towards an instant classic.
But on the Wildcats’ next offensive possession, Haslam was brought down on a sack by Trevor Wood and Anthony Mattio. The senior quarterback landed awkwardly on his right leg and was forced to miss a sizeable portion of the second quarter.
That portion changed the complexion of the game.
Senior Kolbe Poarch, who came in to replace Haslam, fumbled on an attempted handoff two plays into his drive, and the Firebirds responded immediately with Thomas’ second touchdown run of the night from 11 yards out.
Senior Tyler Whiley made it 21-7 with a four-yard run midway through the second quarter, but it was a second special teams play which highlighted the Firebirds’ dominant opening half.
As the clock ticked under five minutes to go in the second quarter, Firebirds coach Dave Huffine called for a fake punt with his team staring at a fourth-and-short from midfield. Castro took the initial snap off to the left, before pitching it back on a reverse to wide receiver Michael Rice. With all eyes on Castro, Rice bolted down the right sideline for a 50-yard score.
“We’ve never run that play before,” Rice said of the fake punt. “We actually just put it in last week. I guess it was the right play to run at that time. And we really needed it to beat them.
“Special teams this time of year are humungous. They are massive. They can be the deciding factor in whether or not you win or lose.”
Rice’s coach agreed.
“This wasn’t easy. But I think special teams were a big part of what we were able to do. We were able to jump out early on them because of it,” Huffine said. “We are always preaching the importance of special teams to the kids, and I’m glad that went our way tonight.”
Despite its early woes on special teams, Mesquite didn’t lie down and instead, responded with 13 unanswered points.
The Wildcats closed the first half with a safety and a field goal and recorded the third quarter’s only scoring play on a 46-yard run by Paul Perry.
But when the game got tight in the final quarter, Mesquite struggled. After failing to convert a third-and-goal pass with under six minutes remaining in the contest, Mesquite coach Jim Jones elected to call on his field goal unit in an attempt to cut the deficit to five.
However, senior Jarrod James, who earlier in the game nailed a 45-yard kick, missed his second attempt wide left. And two plays later, Castro’s touchdown put the finishing touches on Chaparral’s 15-point win.
“We tossed around the idea of going for it, but we were going to have to go for two anyways,” Jones said of his decision to go for a field goal. “The momentum was going our way at that point, and we just felt like kicking it would have kept it that way. If we had gone for it and failed to score that could have hurt our momentum too. At the point, you could have really flipped a coin.
“Where we lost it was the 21 points we gave them after it was tied. When you get into a game like this, you can’t give up points like that. We talked about that all week. With two equal teams, the one that makes the most mistakes is going to come out on the short end. That was us tonight.”
For the Firebirds, their semifinal victory wasn’t without its fair share of issues. In addition to giving up 13 unanswered points, they committed 16 penalties and had only two first downs after halftime.
“If we’re going to beat Salpointe Friday night, we have to have no penalties - or at least no stupid ones like we had against Mesquite,” Thomas said. “It can be hard to cut those down, but we’ll hopefully get it done.”
Chaparral 35, Mesquite 20
First Downs: C – 12, M - 10
Rushing: C - 29-240, M - 37-209
Passing (Comp.-Att.-Yards-TD-INT): C – 17-26-191-0-1, M – 10-25-150-0-1
Fumbles-lost: C – 1-1, M – 3-2
Penalties-yards: C – 16-94, M – 4-20
Chaparral 7 21 0 7 -- 35
Mesquite 7 5 8 0 -- 20
C: Thomas 30-yard run (Packal kick)
M: Haslam 40-yard run (James kick)
C: Thomas 11-yard run (Packal kick)
C: Whiley 4-yard run (Packal kick)
C: Rice 50-yard run (Packal kick)
M: James 45-yard kick
M: Perry 46-yard run (Two-point conversion)
C: Castro 71-yard run (Packal kick)