BUCKEYE — Cactus' final-minute risk fell an agonizing inch or two away from a reward - at least we're somewhat sure.
Trailing Gilbert Mesquite 28-27 after just scoring on senior tailback Anthony Flores' 8-yard touchdown run, Cobras coach Joseph Ortiz went for two with 36 secomds left in the 4A state semifinal.
Senior quarterback Conner Cordts tried to run it in and disappeared into a pileup near the goal line. After meeting for near a minute, the officiating crew determined Cordts was just short and Mesquite preserved the victory at Youngker High School in Buckeye and will play in its first state title game.
"It was a scrum. The truth is - it's my 20th year of coaching and I've won and lost games in those type of situations. This one went my way. It was one inch away from one team or the other going to state. Whomever the call is against is not going to be happy, while whomever the call is for is going to be elated," Mesquite coach Scott Hare said.
It was the crescendo of a wild final 18 minutes of football that saw the teams combine for 44 of the game's 57 total points.
During that home stretch, the teams attempted a combined five two-point conversions. The Cobras took a 21-20 lead less than five minutes before on an easy pitch and catch from Cordts to senior tight end/linebacker Jacob Flaherty.
So while Ortiz's decision may go against "the book," it was consistent with the type of game that unfolded. And it was consisted with the second-year Cobras coach's philosophy.
"It was the circumstances. We wanted to win it and had the momentum. I'm a gambler, so I'm going to take that gamble," Ortiz said.
Ortiz also nodded when asked if the difficulty of stopping Mesquite junior quarterback Ty Thompson on an overtime possession starting at the Cobras' 10 factored into his two-point decision.
By that point, Thompson was showing the full range of skills that has already earned him five offers from Power Five college programs.
He completed 27 of 43 passes for 354 yards and three touchdowns. Seventeen completions, nearly 200 yards and all three touchdowns came in the second half.
Mesquite (10-3) also made Thompson the primary ballcarrier in an often-empty backfield. He carried 17 times compared to two by senior running back Chris Hintze.
"They ran empty the whole time and decided they were going to throw it with him or run it with him. They had a good game plan, 28 points is good. I'm disappointed in our offense to only score 27," Ortiz said.
He began what turned out to be the game-winning drive with just under five minutes on the clock and the Wildcats trailing 21-20. Thomspon threw a high 33-yard ball that senior receiver and a Cactus defensive back caught at the same time.
When the Cobra emerged with the ball, the home stands erupted. But the play was ruled simultaneous possession when Walker landed and was down by contact. In that case, the tie goes to an offensive player.
Shortly after that, a Thompson pass appeared to skip off the turf but was called an 8-yard catch. A complaint from Cactus tacked on a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct foul.
While Ortiz did not cite any specific call postgame, he clearly was miffed by the crew that was sent and their indecisiveness and seeming uncertainty on two or three crucial late-game decisions.
"I'm going to be honest. The AIA has not really taken care of 4A and that was a JV crew. I've seen them at JV games. So for them to have them at a game this big, it's an embarrassment an absolute embarrassment and I'm not afraid to say it," Ortiz said.
Following an incompletion, Thompson made a back shoulder throw to Walker on a corner route for the 12-yard score. He added a two-point toss to Cruz Rivera for a 28-21 Wildcats lead with 2:18 remaining.
Hare said Thompson helped calm everyone around him on that drive, coaches included.
"Ty's first drive of the season against Gilbert was exactly the same as that drive. His demeanor is perfect to play quarterback. He processes well and has the skill set to let the ball go once he's processed it," Hare said.
Thompson hit Walker on a fade for what appeared to be the game's first score. Offsetting penalties wiped out that play, but Thompson later ran it in from the two to give the Wildcats a 6-0 lead when the extra point missed.
To be fair, the Cobras may have benefitted from a big 50-50 call next. Cordts juked a Mesquite defender and was judged to have gotten the ball over the plane of the goal line before fumbling. As called the 12-yard touchdown and point after gave the Cobras a 7-6 lead.
No. 2 seed Cactus (10-3) kept that lead when Mesquite's holder bobbled a snap on a short field goal.
"At this stage of the game, you really don't want to make mistakes. You want to make sure everything's clean.," Hare said. "On your first couple of possessions early in the year, you're saying wing it out. Now it's let's be safe. We'll talk about how they're playing us and figure it out, even if we have to punt a couple times."
In the second half, it was on.
Cactus junior defensive end Riley Davies sacked Thompson for an 11-yard loss but the quarterback responded by completing four straight passes.
The fourth was a seven-yard lob Walker high pointed for a touchdown. Mesquite's two-point run failed. Walker led the Wildcats' deep receiving corps with eight catches for 129 yards.
That 12-7 lead lasted 13 seconds. Senior safety/tailback Nicc Quinones fielded a short kickoff at the 20 and got the corner, scampering down the sidelines 80 yards for a touchdown and 13-12 lead.
Quinones nearly did it again on the next kickoff before being tackled at the Wildcats' 12.
"The two kickoffs kept them ahead in the field position battle. They got points without needing to drive and the second one changed the field position," Hare said.
In between, Thompson completed five more passes. On the fifth, ace sophomore Andrew Morris took away a high pass from the defender for a 26-yard touchdown.
Thompson ran in the two pointer for a 20-13 lead with 3:39 left in the third quarter.
"I also think Cactus is a fantastic run stopping team. We haven't run a lot of five-wides and we did that because of Cactus. We need to exploit where we feel there is a little bit of a weakness, and that's how we moved the ball," Hare said.
Quinones' second kickoff return went for naught. Senior tailback Anthony Flores fumbled a pitch and Mesquite recovered at the four. The Cobras defense held firm with two sacks and allowed the offense to start its next drive at the Wildcats' 38.
But a fourth-down incompletion at the 9 denied Cactus again.
"The defense did a good job against a quarterback like that. To hold them to 28 is an achievement. We messed up on offense. We fumbled near the goal line, and dropped balls and missed opportunities," Ortiz said.
The defense did its job again, allowing this drive to start at the Mesquite 30.
Flores ran with a heightened sense of purpose, scoring the Cobras' final two touchdowns from 7 and 8 yards out.
He's part of a senior class that embraced Ortiz as a new coach following a controversial and difficult changeover from Cactus legend Larry Fetkenhier.
Flores, Cordts, Nicc and Nate (Doodles) Quinones, Flaherty, Travis Combs and Jon Buchannan have been the bedrock of this new-look Cactus program. And the 2019 team amde the school's deepest playoff run since 2011.
"There will always be a special place in my heart for them. Dealing with the transition we had to go through ... they accepted me in and we turned it around in year two. To make it this far is a creadit to these seniors and how they lead this team. I wouldn't want to go to battle with anyone else," Ortiz said.
No. 6 Mesquite moves on to face No. 4 Desert Edge (10-3) for the 4A title at 7 p.m. Dec. 6 at Willow Canyon High School in Surprise.
Hare said he knows that title game would not be possible without the open division concept. Juggerauts Scottsdale Saguaro and Tucson Salpointe Catholic played in the last two 4A championship games and would have again had there not been a competition for the top eight teams in the state.
"We're playing with neighborhood kids and 4A is about playing with neighborhood kids. There are schools in the 4A that are hoisting trophies that are not and the other 4A teams are full of neighborhood kids. The open division is set up for teams that want to be highly ranked in the state and nationally - and there's nothing wrong with that. I think that's the biggest key, it gives the schools with only 1,400 kids that are drawing from their neighborhoods a chance to play the same. I can say that about the four schools that were left."