TUCSON - Northwest Christian senior quarterback Evan Tarasenko completed touchdown passes of 80 and 98 yards in the first half at Mica Mountain, but a concussion suffered early in the third quarter kept him out for the rest of the 4A state semifinal game Friday night.
His absence, after Northwest Christian played the host Thunderbolts to a tie at 17 at halftime, was too much for the No. 6 Crusaders to overcome.
No. 3 Mica Mountain (11-1) seized the momentum and pulled away with Tarasenko out, winning 38-17 to advance to the 4A state semifinals next Friday at Canyon del Oro. Northwest Christian finished its best of four seasons in 4A at 9-3.
“We were tied when he got hurt (during Northwest Christian’s first offensive series of the second half),” Northwest Christian offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Drew Inness said. “He just got a concussion and couldn't put him back in. It was tough to see his amazing season end like that. Statistically, it wasn't even close his numbers compared to everyone else.”
Tarasenko suffered the head injury on an attempted tackle while trying to scramble away from pressure on a play that resulted in an incomplete pass. He completed 7 of 22 pass attempts for 226 yards, 178 of them on the two long touchdown passes.
After moving in from Maui in the spring, Tarasenko finished the season eclipsing 3,000 yards passing with 3,021 while completing 184 of 295 (62.4 percent).
“We're super proud of the season he had,” Inness said. “It just sucks to see him go down like that.”
Inness and his father David, Northwest Christian’s head coach and athletic director, departed Mica Mountain’s campus quickly after the game in order to drive straight to the airport in Phoenix for a flight to see his brother Dustin Inness, a long snapper with Abilene Christian, play at Texas A&M on Saturday at 11 a.m. (10 a.m. in Phoenix).
It looked like it might be a pleasant drive to the airport following the game after Northwest Christian opened the scoring with an 80-yard touchdown pass from Tarasenko to senior receiver/cornerback Gunnar Penzkover on the Crusaders’ very first offensive play.
Northwest Christian regained the lead, 14-7, on Tarasenko’s 98-yard touchdown pass to senior receiver/linebacker Marshall Gillette with 8:25 left in the first half. The Crusaders were pinned deep after a 64-yard punt by Riley Carson was downed at the Northwest Christian 1.
After a 1-yard completion to Cole Martin, Tarasenko connected with Gillette for the 98-yard score. The teams traded field goals before the half ended tied at 17.
After Tarasenko was knocked out of the game, sophomore Laki Wallwork, who played much of the season at the junior varsity level, replaced him. Northwest Christian seemed deflated after a captain's high school career ended prematurely.
On Mica Mountain’s ensuing possession following Tarasenko’s exit, Thunderbolt running back Conner Hangartner’s 40-yard touchdown run with 9:30 left gave his team a 24-17 lead. Northwest Christian then drove to the Mica Mountain 17 but Devin Hayward intercepted a pass at the 1-yard line to preserve the Thunderbolts’ lead.
“Unfortunately for them, their quarterback got hurt and obviously that’s a heck of a football player,” Mica Mountain coach Pat Nugent said. “But you know what? We get after kids. We’ve got an unbelievable D-line and defense. We gave up two really big plays. That’s all they had. “
After Hayward’s interception, Mica Mountain drove 86 yards on six plays, culminating with a 19-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Thoreson to Jonah Garcia – one of three touchdown connections between Thoreson and Garcia. Mica Mountain led 31-17 with 4:02 left in the third quarter.
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Northwest Christian then had consecutive three-and-out possessions. A 60-yard scoring strike from Thoreson to Garcia -- the last 18 of which Garcia tussled with and dragged a defender 18 yards to the end zone – put the Thunderbolts ahead 38-17 with 9:17 left.
Northwestern Christian was held to 85 yards rushing with Ben Leuders handling a bulk of the carries, finishing with 87 yards on 19 rushes. Tarasenko and Wallwork struggled against Mica Mountain’s defense, which included the return of prolific-tackling linebacker Kason Colbert after a month being out because of concussion protocol.
The Northwest Christian quarterbacks combined to complete 11 passes out of 34 attempts for 295 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions.
"We told the kids at half that we dominated, we did everything that we thought we can do. We just came out and had a great second half. Our offense started moving the ball a little bit,” Nugent said.