Three-hour high school football games are often tedious. This one may be talked about for years.
Centennial’s scintillating shootout with Chandler featured two of the state’s best teams, 90 total points, five touchdown plays of 45 of more yards and emotional roller coaster that didn’t let up until the final 30 seconds.
Only when Chandler’s do-everything senior quarterback Brett Hundley’s pass sailed just out of the end zone could the home fans exhale. Centennial (1-0) ran out the clock to preserve the 48-42 win.
“If you were a betting man, on first and goal from the 8, with four cracks at it, did you think (Hundley) was going to get it in?” Centennial coach Richard Taylor asked. “(Our kids) had to give maximum effort a couple of times just to get a finger on it to knock it away.”
Chandler never led Friday night, but staged three comebacks behind Hundley’s dual-threat abilities.
Centennial showed no first-game jitters early, rolling up eight first downs and 14 points in the first quarter as junior quarterback Justin Sanchez shined in his first two drives as a starter, going three for three and rushing for 27 yards. Senior tailback Vegas Johnson finished the drives with touchdown runs of 10 and three yards to give the Coyotes a 14-0 lead.
Hundley responded in the second quarter, completing five passed for 64 yards, including a five-yard touchdown toss to senior tailback John Bishop.
Two plays into its next drive, Centennial turned to senior Gary Ross, who spends most of his time at cornerback and punt returner. This time he split wide, and scorched the Wolves with a 50-yard touchdown run.
“It was the first time he touched the ball,” Taylor said. “He told me, ‘Coach, this year the first time I touch the ball I’m scoring,’ and he did.”
Centennial’s 21-7 lead was short lived. Three minutes later, Hundley flipped a short screen to senior tailback Aaron Mayo, who raced 58 yards for the score.
Centennial’s next drive stalled, until a roughing the kicker penalty gave the Coyotes new life. The very next play, Sanchez faked a draw and hit Ross on a seam route. This 46-yard pass play staked Centennial to a 28-14 halftime lead.
“We just set them up. Luckily, I was able to get open, make one move and shoot to the house,” Ross said. “It was all on our linemen. If it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be able to pull this win off.”
The two-touchdown advantage lasted all of 26 seconds. In that time, with the defense drawn in because of Hundley’s rushing abilities, junior Javon Williams broke out alone on a fly patters. Hundley hit him in stride for a 68-yard touchdown.
Centennial sputtered in the third quarter, punting twice. Mayo ran for 26, Hundley strided for 27 and Bishop burrowed in from a yard out.
With just under two minutes remaining in the third quarter, the game was tied and Chandler’s wave of momentum was cresting.
“I thought we won the second half,” Chandler coach Jim Ewan said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t win the whole game.”
Three consecutive lightning strikes for Centennial kept the Wolves from winning. Two of them came from sophomore tailback Jalen Ortiz.
A personal foul sent the Coyotes back to their 18-yard line. Centennial, operating in the shotgun spread offense, called a counter for Ortiz off action from Johnson in the other direction.
Ortiz got the corner and sprinted 82 yards down the sideline to put the home team back on top 34-38 with 25 seconds left in the third.
“It was a great play call, my offensive line opened it up for me. I had to use my speed to do the rest,” Ortiz said. “I appreciated the confidence (coaches) showed in me.”
In the next Centennial drive, five straight runs produced 54 yards, with Johnson gaining 38. On third down, Chandler bit on another fake to Johnson and Ortiz scored on another counter, this one from 37 yards out.
“He had fresh legs and is an outstanding athlete,” Taylor said. “They were going uphill and we were going down until that happened. The next time we pounded them with Vegas, and ran another counter with Ortiz. I think that was a critical part of the game.”
In between Ortiz’s touchdown runs was the defensive play that saved the game for Centennial. With Chandler down six, Hundley tossed a middle screen to Mayo, who gained 20 yards before junior safety Zach Hoffpauir knocked the ball out of his hands.
A few bobbles later, junior linebacker Nick Kinster fell on the ball. This set up the second Ortiz touchdown and became invaluable as Hundley led yet another comeback.
“That was a roller-coaster ride in one play,” Taylor said. “It was a big play for them, then Hoffpauir knocked the ball out. It looked like we got it, then the ball slipped away and it looked like they were going to get it. Finally we got it.”
Down 41-28, Hundley passed for 36 yards and rushed for 22. Mayo’s touchdown plunge cut the lead to 41-35.
With 5:15 remaining, Chandler tried an onside kick. Centennial recovered at the Chandler 48. Ross scored his third touchdown on a 15-yard run.
Operating a no-huddle offense Hundley completed seven of eight passes, and dove in from a yard out to cut Centennial’s lead to 48-42. For the night, Hundley completed 18 of 37 passes for 372 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for 102 yards and a score on 14 carries.
“That guy has footwork. He’s college-bound, NFL-bound, whatever you want to call it,” said Ross, who played cornerback most of the game. “He’s a playmaker. Hopefully, they’ll have a ring on their finger at the end of the season, too, because they’re a heck of a team.”
This time, with 1:15 on the clock, the onside kicked hopped over Centennial’s line and into the arms of the Wolves. A pass interference call and a 19 yard strike from Hundley to senior receiver Michael Okonkwo, brought Chandler to Centennial’s eight with 51 seconds left.
Four incompletions later, Centennial survived.
While Hundley tore through the defense, the Coyotes responded in kind. Johnson gained 100 yards on 17 carries, and Ortiz’s dashes gave him 131 yards on four carries. On four carries and three catches, Ross accounted for 134 yards of offense.
Sanchez, who played all but two series when junior Troy Hawthorne came in, completed 10 of 13 passes for 134 yards and rushed for 45 yards.
“Justin played well, and we’re still going to use both of them,” Taylor said.