Marana’s storybook season continued with a dramatic 28-21 win over Kellis High School in the first round of the 5A state football playoffs.
“I am really proud of these kids and they got it done,” said Marana Head Coach Andy Litten.
After trailing most of the game, the Cougars tied the game on a 61-yard pass play from Kimani Nelson to Josiah Bailey with 3:08 to play.
The Tigers went to work from their own 36 -yard line. Quarterback Connor Leavens completed his first two passes for 15 yards, then two plays on third and six at the Kellis 45, the Tigers picked up a pass interference call to keep the drive alive.
The rest of the drive saw Leavens get it done with his legs. He took off running on the next play sprinted about to the 15-yard line, vaulted a defender and stepped out of bound inches inside the 10-yard line for a 20-yard gain. Leavens kept on the next two plays gaining four and one, but with less than a minute left the Tigers faced third and goal from the 5-yard line.
With the field goal team ready, Litton called for yet another quarterback keeper. Although the goal was to get into the end zone, at the very least they wanted to give the kicker a shot from the middle. Leavens faked a hand off and rolled right. With receivers crossing the field with him, he was able to use a little head fake to make the defense think he might pass. That move gave him a crease and he made a sprint for the end zone. He dove head first into the end zone and then looked to the officials. It took a second but soon both hand shot up indicating touchdown.
Leavens, whose father passed away a month ago, pointed to the sky before being rushed by his teammates.
“I have been waiting for that moment my entire life,” said Leavens. “I couldn’t have done it without my team and I am so blessed to have everybody behind me. It is incredible.”
Kellis had one last chance. A squib kick gave the Cougars the ball at the Marana 35, but they had just 24.1 seconds to march 65 yards. After an incomplete pass Nelson found Bailey on a 23-yard gain. Despite moving into Marana territory, the Cougars were running out of time and had to go to the end zone. A deep pass hung up and Andrew Smith was able to pick it off and run out the clock.
“I saw the quarterback roll out and it was there, so I went up and got it,” Smith said.
It was the third interception of the game for Smith, who is new to football, taking up the sport after moving to Marana.
The Marana defense was good all night. They gave up just 288 yards of offense, with 128 coming on three long touchdowns.
The Tigers jumped out to a 14-0 first half lead, scoring on two early drives. Leavens found Antonio Reyes on a short 5-yard gain to go up 7-0. On the next possession Leavens looked deep to B.J. McDaniel on a 28-yard touchdown. Leavens hoisted the deep pass to the corner of the end zone and McDaniels had to turn on the after burners to run under the pass.
As good as Leavens was early, he struggled in the middle of the game. He threw two first half interceptions, three overall. Despite the miscues, Litton never looked to make a quarterback change. Most of the year the Tiger used two quarterbacks, but the decision was made before the game to utilize Trenton Bourguet solely on defense.
“He was so important for us at corner,” Litton said. “He’s our best lockdown corner. Trenton is one of the smartest kids that we’ve ever had, especially as a sophomore.”
The Cougars threw once to Bourguet’s side of the field, an incomplete pass.
Kellis scored on their first possession of the second half, but Marana answered. The Tigers made it 21-7 on the next possession. Back to back runs by Reyes and Leavens gained 22 and 19 yards respectively, but then facing 3rd and 13 Leavens tried to thread a needle to Dominic Gehr. Gehr got a hand on the ball, but had to tip it up to himself to haul in the pass for the 13-yard score.
“I tried to get a jump on it and it slipped through my hand,” Gehr said. “Luckily I was able to grab it.”
Kellis chipped away at the lead. Damien Campbell broke off a 37-yard run to cut the Marana lead to 7.
Leading 21-14, Marana tried to seal the win, but failed to convert on 3rd and 2 at the Kellis 34. The Cougars took over and three plays later Bailey hauled in the slant pass and raced 61-yard to tie the game with 3:08 to play.
The win was Marana’s first postseason win since the ’80s and their first every home playoff game. Marana great teams in the 60’s never hosted, since back in those days all playoff games were held at neutral locations.
The Tigers have won 9 in a row, but will have to travel to the Phoenix area to face No. 2 undefeated Williams Field.
For a team to make a deep playoff run it takes unexpected players to succeed. This is especially true when a team is dealing with injuries. For Ironwood Ridge it was wide receiver Garrett Billings who stepped up and helped guide the No. 3 Nighthawks to a 50-20 win over Flowing Wells.
Billings, who had just one receiving touchdown during the regular season, grabbed six on Friday night. He caught eight passes for 289 yards and the six scores.
The game was tight in the first half. Ironwood Ridge quarterback Cole Gerken connected with Billings on a 42-yard score to give the Nighthawks the early lead, but Flowing Wells answered with a touchdown pass of their own.
The Nighthawks looked to break the game open as Gerken found Billings on throws of 42 and 34, but Flowing Wells quarterback Dylan Allison cut the lead to seven with a touchdown run right before the half.
The second half was all Ironwood Ridge.
Billings caught his fourth touchdown early in the third quarter and then Nick Brahler ran one in from 20-yards out to make it 35-14.
The Gerken/Billings connection continued with two more scores to put the Nighthawks up 50-14. Flowing Wells added a late touchdown to round out the scoring.
Gerken was sharp all night long. He completed 12-of-19 passes for 314 yards. Brahler added 140 yards rushing on just 17 carries.
The Nighthawks will host Queen Creek on Thursday night.
For the second straight season Mountain View’s season ended on a failed two point conversion. The Mountain Lions fell 21-19 to Mesquite.
Isaiah Lovett hauled in a long touchdown pass with just over a minute left in the game, but the two-point conversion failed and Mesquite recovered the ensuing on-sides kick and was able to run out the clock.
The normally potent offense struggled at times on the night, gaining just 326 yards on the night.
Down 7-0, Caleb Ryden found Wyatt Adams on a short touchdown pass to tie things up.
Mesquite made it 14-7, but Mountain View tied things up when Anthony Leyva and Sebastian Spencer teamed up on a touchdown toss. The kick was no good, allowing Mesquite to hold a 1-point lead.
Two second half fumbles hurt the Mountain Lions and things looked bleak late in the fourth after Mesquite took a 21-13 lead. The Mountain Lions made the most of their final drive and Leyva found Isaiah Lovett on a 4-yard score to cut the lead to 21-19.
Mountain View finished the season at 7-4.
For the second straight week Salpointe beat Canyon Del Oro. The first game was to decide a regional title, the second was in the 4A state playoffs. Salpointe beat the Dorados 10-6 to advance to the state quarter finals.
For CDO it marked the end of a season that saw the Dorados return to the playoffs after a rough 2015.
The Dorados finished the season 6-5, after winning just 3 games the year before.
Neither offense had much success. CDO had just two trips into the redzone in the second half, garnering just a single field goal, while Salpointe was held to just 183 yards of offense.
Their lone touchdown, a 25-yard run from Mario Padilla, was set up by a long kickoff return.
A year after winning a state title, Pusch Ridge saw their season end against the team they beat in the state title game a year ago. Northwest Christian jumped out to a 28-14 lead and weathered a fourth quarter comeback to beat the Lions 28-21.
Dakota Haynes scored all three touchdowns for the Lions, rushing for 110 yards on just 13 carries. The rest of the Pusch Ridge offense managed just 82 yards.
The Lions finished the season at 7-4 under first year coach Jerry Harris.
The future is bright for Pusch Ridge as they return their leading passer, their top-5 leading rushers and five of the six receivers the multiple catches.