CENTENNIAL STUNNED - East Valley Tribune: VarsityXtra

CENTENNIAL STUNNED

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Posted: Friday, December 4, 2009 1:17 am | Updated: 3:09 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

It ended at about 9:30 p.m. Friday night.

Centennial football's 39-game winning streak, the Coyotes drive for a fourth straight 5A-II state championship and the top 10 national rankings by the USA Today and ESPN - that's all over now.

Tempe Marcos de Niza (12-1) surprised the Coyotes, local prep football fans and perhaps themselves by slaying the giant 16-14 in a 5A-II semifinal at North Canyon High School in Phoenix. Senior Justin Rodriguez intercepted senior Dain McFarland's pass in the end zone with five seconds left to cap the Padres' perfect night.

"It's a total team effort," Marcos de Niza coach Roy Lopez said through tears of joy. "The kids played their a**es off. They never gave up on each other."

On the other side, a group that hadn't played a close game in the fourth quarter for two years - let alone lost one - milled about in a stunned silence. No longer an indomitable machine, the Coyotes were like most high school players for the first time since 2005 - a bunch of teenagers coming to grips with the end of their season.

"It's a weird feeling," Centennial coach Richard Taylor said. "We thanked the seniors for setting such a shining example to all of us.

"I told them that after we win championships, the first thing I do is, I always give God the praise and the glory," Taylor said. "The Bible tells us that we praise God in good times and bad times, so I just said 'praise Him now, too, in bad times.'"

Taylor said the loss cannot be attributed to taking the Padres lightly. But, while the team and the coaching staff expected a tough struggle, everyone in the locker room had reason to believe this battle-tested, deep, veteran unit would pull through in the end.

"I told my wife when we left - she said 'what kind of game,' - I said 'It's going to be hard, but we're going to win,'" Taylor said.

The Coyotes' final offensive play crystallized two of the main reasons they didn't win. It was an interception - Centennial's fourth turnover of the night - and it was a leaping grab by Rodriguez in the end zone.

Earlier in the night, Rodriguez had scored the Padres' two touchdowns by using his leaping ability and 6-3 frame on jump balls in the end zone. Yet, his touchdowns and interception were not as big as his only pass.

Trailing 14-13 with about eight minutes left, Marcos faced a second down play from its own 5 yard line. Rodriguez, as he had done a couple of times earlier in the night, lined up as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation.

This time, though, he didn't run. Instead, Rodriguez lofted the ball down the left sideline to open junior Martwon Weaver for a 55-yard gain.

Then, the Padres' ground game picked up two first downs before Centennial stopped them at the 17. With 6:17 remaining, junior Devon Jones split the uprights on what proved to be the game winning 34-yard field goal.

"Credit to them, they got the ball out of there and kicked the field goal they needed," Taylor said.

It was a moment of redemption for Jones after a missed point after from a similar distance. With 7:15 left in the third quarter, Marcos senior safety Ramon Abreu batted McFarland's pass straight up, leaped to make an interception and returned the ball to the Coyotes 21.

Senior quarterback Zach Schira found Rodriguez on a fly pattern on the next play for a score that drew the Padres within one. Jones made the extra point, but a chop block nullified the kick and moved the ball back 15 yards. The now-33-yard extra point try sailed wide left.

Still in the lead, the Coyotes appeared to have momentum, especially after a 14-yard jump pass from senior Austin Arias to senior Tymer Nahrang on a fake punt moved the ball to the Padres 31.

But, as was the theme all night, every time Centennial looked primed to go on one of its patented scoring bursts the Coyotes committed a crippling penalty or turnover. In this case, a 15-yard late hit penalty knocked the offense back and a fourth-down pass went awry.

"I guess maybe some people would call this an upset. If it is an upset - upsets take place because of two things, turnovers and penalties," Taylor said. "And in that respect we were primed and ready. (Marcos de Niza) played very hard, they played well and they took advantage of our mistakes."

Centennial quickly stopped the Padres and had the ball in Marcos de Niza territory again, but wasted this opportunity with three false starts. Senior Ryan Leslie pinned the Padres in with a punt to the 10, only to see Rodriguez connect with Weaver two plays later.

After the Coyotes got the ball back trailing by two, they relied on senior star Anthony Hughes, who gained 22 rushing yards and two first downs, then caught a pass for another 16 yards. Marcos' defense slowed Hughes and set up a fourth-and-seven at the 37. McFarland tried for the conversion on a designed run, but was stopped after a two-yard gain.

The Padres milked 2:11 off the clock, even running a fake punt to take off more time. Centennial started at the Padres 37 with 28 seconds left. With no time outs left, McFarland completed two out routes to junior Gary Ross for 12 yards.

Centennial had 14 seconds left, and decided to try for the end zone instead of kicking a long field goal. Then, Rodriguez sealed the game with his interception.

"They're a good program, man. That's the biggest thing," Lopez said. "They're one of the top in the nation and the boys stepped up and made big plays."

Marcos de Niza showed it was ready at the start, forcing Hughes to fumble on the game's second play. The Coyotes defense knocked the Padres out of scoring position, but Centennial had started its pattern of crucial mistakes.

Ross muffed the Padres' second punt, and Marcos de Niza recovered at the Centennial 47. The Coyotes stopped a third down play from their 17, only to give up a first down on an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.

On third and goal, Schira looped a seven-yard fade pass to Rodriguez to give the Padres a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Centennial struck back with the lone sustained drive of the night, a nine-play, 73-yard march that ended with McFarland rolling out and finding senior tight end Austin Garday for a 10-yard score.

Two-and-a-half minutes later, the Coyotes had their one true chance to overwhelm the Padres. Ross fielded a punt, saw a lane open on the left side and zoomed 52 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 lead.

Centennial was 40 yards away from adding to its lead with 2:29 left in the half. But after being stuffed on third-and-one, the offense committed another personal foul penalty and was forced to punt.

Though Friday's parade of mental mistakes is a bitter end for the Class of 2010, it cannot take away their accomplishments. Eight of today's seniors played key roles on the 2007 title team. More started or played extensively in last year's undefeated title run.

The number of potential Division 1 players coming back this year gave the program national attention. And most importantly, Taylor said, these kids gained something more valuable than headlines, scholarship offers - or even a fourth straight state title.

"I told them that the lessons that they learned from football, I hope would go with them forever, and that they would write me letters like former players have and said that 'football was got me through Marine boot camp,' 'football was what made me stay in school when I didn't think I could,' 'football was the only thing that kept me together when my baby son died,'" Taylor said. "And I reminded them of the friendships that they made - many of them, they'll be friends the rest of their lives."

 

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