There was no doubt in the minds of Mesquite coach Scott Hare and senior quarterback Ty Thompson the Wildcats would attempt a two-point conversation to avoid overtime against Cactus in the 4A championship game Friday night.
So when Thompson connected with Lira to pull within a point of the Cobras with just 17 seconds remaining, all that was left to be decided was the play Mesquite would run. Hare and the offense settled on a short slant route to Lira, which the senior transfer from Central High School pulled in despite two Cactus defenders draped on his back. Just moments later, the Wildcats stormed the field with a 39-38 win and their second straight 4A title.
“I knew we were going to go for two during the week,” Hare said. “Now, the two-point play I wanted to use I had to use it the play before. So we kind of drew it up in the dirt and Eric made a play.”
Mesquite’s come-from-behind victory was fueled by key defensive stops late in the fourth quarter. All game, the Wildcats struggled to contain Cactus’ run-game led by running backs Damian Jiles and Aki Pulu, as well as quarterback Will Galvan.
The trio combined for 210 total rushing yards, with Jiles leading the way with 117 and three touchdowns. Pulu also found the end zone once for the Cobras and Galvan, who was 5-of-8 for 65 yards through the air, had a 50-yard passing touchdown on Cactus’ first drive of the game.
But trailing two touchdowns with time winding down, Mesquite defense dug in and came up with the crucial stops that allowed its offense to drive down the field and eventually win the game.
“I trust each person. If they’re out on the field, I believe in them,” Hare said. “For me, it wasn’t ever an issue not believing my defense could do it. I knew they would stay the course and play 48 minutes.”
After Cactus’ touchdown to start the game, Mesquite responded with three straight touchdowns for 18-unanswered points. Thompson accounted for two of the touchdowns — a 57-yard pass to Lira and a 1-yard run — while junior athlete Andrew Morris accounted for the other after he forced a fumble and took it back for a 50-yard score on defense.
The two first-quarter touchdowns were two of five Thompson accounted for on the night. The Oregon commit finished the final and most important game of his high school career 26-of-40 for 329 yards and five total touchdowns. Lira, who caught 16 passes for 255 yards, was on the receiving end of all three of Thompson’s touchdown passes, as well as the game-winning two-point conversion.
“Eric was a great addition, we are blessed to have him,” Thompson said. “I’m excited, I’m happy, I’m blessed. I’ve got the best team in the state. I love my guys.”
Lira’s transfer to Mesquite was fueled by uncertainty surrounding the Phoenix Union High School District’s future in regard to football in the fall. Before the start of the season, he transferred to join the Wildcats and was granted immediate eligibility. While difficult to transfer away from a coaching staff he had grown close to, Central coach Chandler Hovik and the rest of the staff supported Lira in his decision.
His impact was felt immediately, as he quickly became one of Thompson’s go-to targets thanks to his athletic ability. That was on full display Friday night in the 4A championship when the Wildcats needed it the most.
Lira aimed to help Mesquite win back-to-back titles when he joined the program. He said he even envisioned on the short bus ride from Mesquite to Highland High School where the game was held he would somehow come up with a game-winning catch. That dream turned into a reality.
“I knew they were going to give it to me and I had to make a play,” Lira said. “Ty put it in the right spot for me and I made the play. I’ve been dreaming about that moment since the beginning of senior year.
“I wanted to play my heart out and leave it all on the field. Hopefully, we would come out with a ring and that’s what we did. I’m thankful for everybody who helped me out.”
Mesquite coach Scott Hare at first attempted to avoid the water bucket while meeting with his team ahead of the trophy presentation at midfield. But he was quickly held in place by players and his coaching staff.
While admittedly one of the things he likes the least about winning titles, it’s a culmination of yet another successful season in by far the most difficult one Mesquite, Cactus and all other Arizona teams have had to face due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t like the ice baths. I’m contemplating whether I want to keep winning these things,” Hare said. “But no, I’ll take it. It’s been a draining year with the cancellations and the ups and downs and playing tough teams. You’ve got a guy quarantined here or over there, it’s been tough.
“But I’ll look back on this as a very rewarding season. The kids did a fantastic job this year staying the course and doing what they were asked to do and as hard as they could.”