Zach Eidenschink rolled to his left, cocked his arm and heaved a ballooning throw down field, leaving thousands of fans in a state of slack-jawed suspended animation.
The Canyon Del Oro High School junior gunslinger, who had two passing touchdowns by that point in last Friday’s matchup against Ironwood Ridge High School, lobbed the pass towards the northwest corner of the field as the seconds drained off the scoreboard, hoping for a final miracle.
His fatal flaw, as it turned out, was a simple matter of weight distribution, with the junior not leaning forward correctly, resulting in a soaring pass instead of a tight spiral.
The ball, which seemed to float through the dank fog of Oro Valley for an eternity, nailed his receiver’s left hand, careening skyward, where a Nighthawk defender snagged it.
The interception capped off a wild night, allowing the home crowd to leave with nothing more than a spike in blood pressure and a missed heartbeat or two.
The Nighthawks survived, as the red-tinted lights on that same scoreboard showed the final score of 24-21 in all its glory (or heartache).
It was the latest escapade in what’s become one of the premier high school rivalries in the Grand Canyon State, leaving players from both sides exhausted and exasperated.
Both coaches found positives from the sordid affair on the gridiron, and exhaled at being able to avoid costly injuries in a sport well-known for them.
“In the cycle of life we’re teenagers,” Ironwood Ridge coach Matt Johnson said of his team. “We’re not adults yet, we’re teenagers. And you hope that by the time that we’re in the playoffs that we’re adults. So we did a lot of good stuff tonight. We have a lot of potential, and we have to grow some as well.”
Longtime Dorados coach Dustin Peace touched on a similar narrative in his summation, hitting an optimistic tone about his team’s prospects going forward.
“Oh man, we’re starting to believe,” Peace said. “They’ve been putting up some really big numbers on everyone. We let them get off with a couple of big plays and couldn’t seal it at the end. But I’m just really proud of the way that we played.”
The on-field performances of the night belonged to a pair of senior backs, in Nick Brahler of IRHS and Elijah Carey of CDO.
The two ran for close to 500 yards combined, with Brahler slashing his way to a 218-yard, two-touchdown performance, while Carey had 229 yards and a score.
Johnson praised the effort put forth by the Nighthawks’ seniors, who he felt led the charge on Friday.
“We’re growing up every week,” he said. “You know, once again, for a lot of these guys this was their fourth start on varsity. They might be seniors, but they’re just not used to this moment. So we’ll keep working.”
For Peace, watching his meager roster of 32 teenaged athletes do double-duty, with most playing on both sides of the ball, was what stood out the most.
“We’ve got weapons, and we knew that we were going to pound and pound, and we were able to get them over the top early,” Peace said. “We just needed one more big play in the second half, that’s all it took. But those kids should be proud, we all should be proud. We’re going to stick together and grow from this.”
Both teams hope to continue their collective momentum, with Ironwood Ridge heading into its bye week with a 4-0 record, while CDO sits at 2-1 ahead of its home clash with intra-district foe Amphitheater High School.
Johnson said his main goal for his team during its week off is to keep up with conditioning and the prep work needed for the six-week grind to end the regular season.
He knows his team faces a juggernaut in its next game, hosting fellow undefeated Division 5A powerhouse Queen Creek on Sept. 15.
“We’ve just got to keep correcting the fundamentals of football,” Johnson said. “Like I’m sure (CDO’s coaches will) say, most of our wounds were self-inflicted. We’d do some really good things and then we’d do some really silly things, and we’ve got to keep maturing out there on the field.”
The most important thing for Peace and company is simple, to keep doing what’s gotten them to this point, that being a healthy dose of sweat.
“We’re going to come back, lick our bruises and wipe our tears and get all that figured out and go back to the drawing board,” Peace said. “We’re going to get better, and you only get about a few more opportunities. These kids have played 50 or 60 games each, and now they have seven left.”