Crusaders survive another playoff shootout with Shamrocks

Johnson's interception with 6 seconds left preserves win

Posted 11/16/19

This time, it would be different.

The big playoff game between Northwest Christian and Yuma Catholic would not be decided on the last play.

The winner was determined on the second to last play.

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Crusaders survive another playoff shootout with Shamrocks

Johnson's interception with 6 seconds left preserves win


This time, it would be different.

The big playoff game between Northwest Christian and Yuma Catholic would not be decided on the last play.

The winner was determined on the second to last play. The Crusaders scored and completed a two-point conversion with 49.9 seconds left to take a 37-34 lead in the 3A quarterfinal Nov. 15.

Shamrocks senior quarterback Gage Reese was undaunted, launching a fourth-down pass for 41 yards that senior receiver Rakai Malone secured with one hand at the Northwest Christian 14.

"There were plenty of times when we weren't in the game or tried to give it away. They scored with six-something minutes left. I said, 'Hey, we've been here before,'" Northwest Christian coach Dave Inness said. "What about the catch at the end by Malone? Unbelievable. It was a crazy game." 

A Crusaders lineman blocked Reese's next attempt. Then sophomore linebacker Luke Johnson dropped into coverage, read Reese's eyes and picked him off at his own 6 yard line with 6.6 seconds left.

"Coaches taught us exactly what to do. Honestly I didn't know there was a crossing route coming. I was just watching the quarterback's eyes. He threw it near me and I was able to make the play," Johnson said. "There's nothing like it. I'm just happy we can keep it going for our great senior leaders."

There were striking similarities to the instant classic 2018 state 3A final. Northwest Cristian came from behind to win that triple-overtime epic 40-37.

But this year, a similarly exhausting effort only nets a younger Crusaders squad a berth in the semifinals. #3 seed Northwest Christian (10-1) faces #2 American Leadership Academy-Queen Creek (11-1) at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 23 at Higley High School in southeast Gilbert.

"No matter who we got, in the playoffs anything can happen, as you saw tonight. There's a great opportunity ahead of us, especially for the guys that will be back next year," senior quarterback Easton Meier said.

To get there his team had to escape a fourth quarter almost as electrifying as the end of that title game. The final seven minutes alone featured a game's worth of twists and turns.

The #11 seed Yuma Catholic (7-5) was near full strength for one of the few times in its chaotic season. The Shamrocks carried a 21-17 lead in the fourth quarter and were spending much of the second half on the ground in an I formation/spread hybrid.

Senior running back Ean Chavez slipped off a tackle, bounced to the outside and scooted 18 yards for a touchdown to give the visitors a 28-17 lead with 6:54 remaining.

"Chavez got nicked up in the (first-round) Valley (Christian) game so what (coach Rhett Stallworth) did is go more to the I formation and looked like Northwest Christian. He even laughed about it when I exchanged film with him," Inness said.

Now the run-heavy Crusaders needed to score quickly. Senior leaders Meier and Cameron Adams were up to the task.

On the second snap of the ensuing drive, Meier connected with Adams on a 10-yard out. Then the receiver/cornerback shook a tackler and tightroped the sideline to turn the play into a 55-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion failed.

It began a quarter of redemption for Adams, who muffed a punt in the second quarter, and won some and lost some in coverage of Malone. 

"The first couple of quarters ... muffing a punt was an unacceptable, stupid mistake. Had my eyes in they backfield and they get up top. That's a rookie mistake," Adams said. "It's about playing for one another and I wanted to do it for everyone else. I caught the out, turned it up, saw someone was coming at the numbers, did a stutter-step and got by him. Then I was tiptoeing on the sideline thinking, 'Am I out? Am I out?' I didn't hear a whistle so I kept going."

Yuma Catholic fumbled two plays later and junior linebacker Cooper Valerius recovered it at the Shamrocks' 21.

Adams got the call again, running the jet sweep for a 21-yard touchdown. Another two-point try failed, but the Crusaders led 29-28 only 1:22 after falling behind 11 points.

"He struggled at times and was trying too hard, but he's been my guy for three years. He could hardly walk at the end but he's not coming out," Inness said.

Stallworth's team absorbed the comeback and struck back. After a sack, Chavez took a quick out from Reese and gained 23 yards.

Then Reese hit Malone in stride on a slant route and his favorite target took it 42 yards to regain the lead. A Crusaders lineman batted down the two-point try to keep the score at 34-29.

Meier took over from there. He completed five straight passes to four different receivers for 74 yards in a (slightly longer than) two-minute drill.

Adams took the jet sweep in the opposite direction six yards for the go-ahead touchdown. Sophomore tailback Grant Gibson ran in the two-point conversion and the Crusaders led 37-34.

"We're a run-first team and everybody knows that. But our receivers work hard every day and they did their job when they were called upon. They showed up big tonight," Meier said.

Nothing in the opening sequence suggested this ending. Yuma Catholic recovered an onside kick to begin the game and Reese dropped a 42-yard dime to Malone for a 7-0 lead 12 seconds in.

Northwest Christian responded with a field goal. But Reese was on target again, hooking up with sophomore receiver Mario Martinez on a post for a 30-yard touchdown.

"It is so hard with a bunch of young guys to play Odyssey, where everyone is in the box, then go to covering good players in space with Gage throwing the ball," Inness said.

Workhorse Austin Young brought the home team back, scoring a 14-yard touchdown on a sweep. Then Meier gave Northwest Christian its first lead, hitting senior Eddie VanSant on a 10-yard out for the score and 17-14 lead.

Reese and Martinez connected on a 46-yard pass to set up Chavez's touchdown from the 4.

Reese completed only four passes in the first half but made them count, for a total of 154 yards. Malone caught five passes on the night for 147 yards.

Young handled the load for the Crusaders with 98 yards on 19 carries before halftime. Then Meier owned the second half and finished the night with 262 passing yards and four touchdowns. Adams hauled in nine for 126 yards.

"There's not a returning offensive lineman in that bunch. And they picked up some blitzes that were big time on that final drive. I'm honored to play another week," Inness said.