For all the discussion about Centennial and Chaparral's playmakers, whether they would be deployed in the spread formation or the Wildcat and how they would match up, the 5A-II title game was out of their hands.
Instead, the Firebirds won their second consecutive state championship on the back of dominant play from both of their lines. Chaparral trailed 10-9 with seven minutes remaining in the third quarter when senior defensive end Sean Kamela stuffed Centennial sophomore tailback Jalen Ortiz to pick up his second safety of the night.
"We challenged (Kamela) this week, and he really answered the bell for us," Chaparral coach Charlie Ragle said. "That's the kind of player he is."
Immediately, Chaparral went back to the game plan that worked best in the first half. Junior quarterback Connor Brewer lined up in the shotgun with junior tailbacks Zach Skeen and Lucas Petrullo split to either side. Brewer either handed off to one back going up the middle, or faked to set up the other runner on a counter play.
Skeen picked up 16 yards on the counter and a first down. Petrullo followed with a 19-yard run. Skeen was stopped on third down at the 1, but Petrullo dove in on a fourth-down run to give the Firebirds a 18-10 lead.
Chaparral (14-0) added two fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat Centennial (12-2) 32-17 Monday night at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Skeen and Petrullo combined for 194 yards rushing.
"We felt going into this game like we had the advantage up front on both sides of the football," Ragle said. "This time of year, it's a battle of the men in the trenches. What it really boils down to is these kids getting up at 5:45 in the morning and sacrificing and giving everything they've got. They're physically superior, they worked their butts off and dominated in the trenches."
With 10:19 remaining, the Coyotes had a glimmer of hope after junior safety Jesse Callahan forced Skeen to fumble and senior linebacker Tevin Ray recovered.
But on third and four from the Centennial 42 a low snap skidded along the turf and out of the hands of senior Gary Ross, lined up as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation. Senior safety Colton Bishop fell on the ball at the Centennial 43.
"We just didn't play well enough in the second half. We needed to play that really good, crisp, sharp game, and we didn't," Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. "Offensively we didn't do it, and defensively they were just bigger and stronger."
Chaparral could not connect on the deep ball all night, but slammed the door with two short passes. Petrullo took a screen on third down and rumbled 25 yards to the Centennial 9.
On third and goal, Brewer found junior tight end Peter Greene open over the middle for a seven-yard touchdown.
Bishop added a sack and interception on consecutive plays. Then Davonte Neal, held in check all game, provided the exclamation point.
Neal caught a middle screen and broke three tackles to pick up 26 yards and a first down. He ran for seven more, fumbled, and fell on it at the 1. Then the junior scored from a yard out.
Centennial also tacked on a late score. Junior quarterback Justin Sanchez injured his ankle and junior Troy Hawthorne came on. Hawthorne connected with senior Julien Singleton on a fly pattern for a 66-yard touchdown.
The Coyotes' other highlights came in the first half. With Chaparral threatening midway through the first quarter, junior safety Zach Hoffpauir jumped a route to pick off Brewer and returned the interception to Chaparral's 49.
The Coyotes bogged down, and the Firebirds got on the board first as Skeen ran three yards up the gut of the defense with 24 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
On the first play of the second quarter, Kamela sacked Sanchez in the end zone to build the lead to 9-0.
"They do a really good job of blitzing. They've got kids that come off the edge fast and strong and we just weren't able to handle that," Taylor said.
Centennial's defense stiffened and set up the offense at it own 43. On the first play, Sanchez kept the ball on a read option run, scooting for 31 yards.
Ross picked up nine yards on a middle screen for a first down. Then, on third down, Ross ran a fade route and leaped, catching Sanchez's throw at the apex of his jump and getting his feet in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown with 4:43 remaining.
"Justin made a really nice run. That was something we put in this week," Taylor said. "Gary's catch - he just wasn't going to be denied there. He just went up high and strong and got it."
Centennial's halftime lead came gift-wrapped. Chaparral faced fourth and one at the Centennial 42, lined up to go for it and called time out.
Then the Firebirds, instead of snapping it to an up back or trying to pound the middle of the line, decided to have senior punter Alex Holmes roll out and throw to the other side of the field.
Centennial was not fooled and the ball fell harmlessly to the turf.
The Coyotes drove for two minutes, and Sanchez scrambled out of bounds with a second left in the half. Junior Alex Kammeyer's 42-yard field goal snuck inside the crossbar as the half ended.
Centennial became the first team to lead Chaparral at halftime in two years. The momentum was short lived, as the Firebirds' defense knocked them backwards. The Coyotes rushed for 79 yards on the night, and recorded a -4 in the second half.
While there's disappointment at Centennial, who had a chance to win a fourth title in five years, there's a sense of accomplishment for this group. The 2010 Coyotes maximized their talents - and just ran into a more talented team Monday.
"Our kids played as hard as they could," Taylor said. "Our seniors ... people didn't give us much of a chance to be here in the beginning because we had so many new kids. They improved every week."