In typical fashion this season, it was a high-scoring region game full of wild momentum swings, but in the end Estrella Foothills was the fastest gun in the 4A Southwest.
After scoring 47 and 48 points in league games the last two weeks, the Wolves added one more to hold off the relentless effort of Deer Valley 49-38. The victory not only clinched the region crown, it vaulted Estrella Foothills (4-3) from #19 to #15 in the 4A rankings and a spot in the play-in round.
Senior Laveen Cesar Chavez transfer running back Henry De Leon has sparked the offense since becoming eligible. At Deer Valley Nov. 13 he did it all, rushing for 90 yards and three touchdowns, catching another touchdown pass, and returning the opening kickoff of the second half 83 yards for a score.
"He had to sit out the first three games. We found an area where we thought he could really benefit our program and he really has," Estrella Foothills Derek Wahlstrom said. "The three-game streak where we lost earlier this year was a lot of self-inflicted wounds. I think we're a better football team than we showed there. The last three weeks have been more reflective of who we are. Our players deserve a lot of credit, especially our seniors - and our coaching staff as well."
As of Saturday, Estrella Foothills is the #14 seed in 4A - since #9 Glendale will not be cleared from quarantine until Nov. 21, the day after the play-in round. If the brackets remain in that state, Estrella Foothills will travel to #3 Flagstaff Coconino (7-0) Nov. 20.
Unfortunately, De Leon may not be able to make the trip. He injured his knee midway through the fourth quarter, and was on crutches with ice on the knee as the game ended.
"It's too early to say. We're hoping and praying he's going to be ok," Wahlstrom said.
Tied at 7 entering the second quarter, both teams kicked their offense into overdrive. Within 27 seconds it was 14-14.
Wolves senior quarterback Ty Perry started the quarter with his first of three touchdown passes. He lofted a 3-yard score to senior tight end Matt Gundogan in the corner of the end zone.
Deer Valley (3-4) junior Steve Magnusson returned the ensuing kickoff more than 60 yards.
Sophomore quarterback Rudy Gonzales tossed to senior receiver Trent Green on an apparent reverse, but it was a fake. Green, the starting quarterback last year tossed a 15-yard score to junior running back Ashton Hill for a 14-14 tie.
"It's a fun region and it's going to stay very competitive," Deer Valley coach Dan Friedman said. "I think our underclassmen now understand what it's going to take to get us over the hump."
Estrella Foothills replied in les than two minutes with a De Leon scoring run. After a Wolves defensive stop, Perry connected with his favorite target, senior receiver Daylen Batchan, for a five-yard touchdown and 28-14 advantage.
Green kept the Skyhawks alive, cutting back against the grain to turn a quick slant into a 36-yard touchdown. It was 28-21 Wolves at halftime.
"He's such a great athlete and very instinctive. He's an undersized kid but he plays bigger than what he is," Friedman said.
De Leon's kickoff return stopped that momentum cold. Then the Wolves quickly forced a fumble and recovered it at the Deer Valley 35.
Five plays later, De Leon spun in for a 2-yard score. While the visitors' defense gave up big yardage a point totals, they brought a physical presence by forcing two fumbles.
"We have some really good senior-led defensive players that definitely showed their abilities tonight. (Sophomore) John Coleman played an outstanding game. He brought the lumber when he was on the field. I was very pleased with how our defense played in spots. But there were times when we were out of position and their athletes made plays," Wahlstrom said.
A 19-yard score on a screen pass from Perry to De Leon with 4:24 left in the third quarter appeared to put it away at 49-24.
But the home team refused to yield, scoring twice more and recovering an onside kick each time. Sophomore Aaron Manone scored a four-yard touchdown to start the fourth.
Gonzales threaded a 30-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver Kellen Huth to draw the Skyhawks within 11. But Estrella Foothills forced a turnover on down to end the threat of a comeback.
"I'm proud of them for the perseverance. We're still very young at Deer Valley. My hats off to the seniors and the foundation they've built. We're going to get better. Years ago this wouldn't have been a game. We would have laid down and it would have been over," Friedman said.
Unlike two years ago, the Wolves' region title did not come with an automatic playoff berth, so the trip north was a pleasant surprise.
"We're hopeful we'll get into the playoffs. Regardless of who we play and the circumstances, we're going to go out there and approach it in the same manner," Wahlstrom said.