It's been a few years since Horizon was in a playoff game. Desert Vista hadn't been in one since 2002. One team would advance, the other would go home to think about a lost season. This was high school playoff football at its' finest.
Both teams went into the game without some of their best players. The Thunder would be without the Burks brothers, Aaron and Adrian. Aaron, the team's free safety and leader of the secondary was out with a bruised femur, while Adrian was out with a concussion. Horizon was missing monster defensive end Dan Pela, out with a broken ankle, and junior Alex Quinn, their starting running back who has been out most of the season.
The game shaped up as a battle of Horizon's potent spread offense against the physically tough defense of Desert Vista. In the first half, the Thunder defense dominated. Horizon was forced to punt six times and turned the ball over once. Not much for an offense that had been generating over 30 points per contest. DV defenders Cameron Bowen and Jimmy Cook spearheaded the Thunder defensive effort.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the line, the Desert Vista offensive line was opening huge holes for junior running back Avory Battle. Battle ran off some big chunks of real estate and finally scored from the 3 late in the first as the Thunder took an early 7-0 lead and made it hold up at the half. The Husky offense never did get on track. They were held to 62 total yards, 55 passing and just 7 on the ground.
Evidently, some adjustments were made by head coach Steve Casey at the half. The Huskies threatened on their first possession of the half, missing a 51 yard field goal by Stefan Demos. They marched deep into Thunder territory on their next possession, aided by two big penalties on Desert Vista. After an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, the Huskies were faced with a big 3rd and goal from the 25 yard line. Horizon receiver Ryan Berg made a gutsy catch over the middle and dragged three Thunder defenders down to the one. On fourth down, running back Gary Cooper punched it in and the Huskies were on the board. Game tied 7-7.
The Thunder rolled right back. They went on a 14 play, 80 yard drive, mostly on the ground, finally scoring on a nifty 18 yard cut back run by Battle. For the night, Avory gained 144 yards on 22 carries to go along with his 2 touchdowns. Game on!
Under the calm leadership of senior QB Dax Crum, the Desert Valley region offensive player of the year, the Huskies refused to lose. Richie Lee took the kickoff from the Thunder 57 yards to the DV 40. Two more key penalties by the Thunder, one a holding call, another a disputed facemask, put Horizon in scoring position. A swing pass to Oscar Alvarez put the ball on the 1 where Cooper went in for another score with under four minutes to go. On the extra point, Thunder d-lineman Steven Lambe made what looked to be the play of the game when he snuffed the try by Stefan Demos. 14-13 Thunder.
The Thunder were content to run the clock on their possession. On third and ten, sophomore quarterback Gerrell Robinson made a mistake he won't in future seasons. Rolling right, he failed to tuck the ball away as Horizon linebacker Jordan Hull, who had already had a big game with an interception, knocked it from his hands. The Huskies recovered and Crum made the Thunder pay big. He hooked up with his favorite receiver Reilly Sullivan on a seam route down the middle and Horizon had their first lead of the game 19-14.
Robinson again made a big mistake when Desert Vista got the ball, throwing an ill advised pass that sophomore cornerback Jack Mora picked off and ran in for the score. Game, set, match, Horizon. Steven Parker sacked Robinson in the end zone to close out the scoring and the Huskies won a date to face off against number 3 Mesa Mountain View next week.
Some observations about the game. Horizon is exciting to watch. Crum has a great arm and terrific leadership skills. He didn't panic and made the big play when he had a chance to Sullivan, who was suffering from back spasms and played a gutsy game. Crum's numbers were mediocre for him (13/24 for 132 yards and 1 TD) but he came up big in crunch time. He also didn't have any turnovers.
The Horizon defense is underrated led by Hull and Parker. They're going to need to do a better job against the run against the Nielsen brothers of Mountain View. The offense is also going to have to run for more than the 33 yards they did against Desert Vista. You always have a chance when you play good defense and are strong in the kicking game as Horizon is.
Desert Vista has to be kicking themselves. This was their game to win. Battle and the offensive line were terrific and the defense did the job, minus the coverage on the Sullivan touchdown. Penalties, penalties, and more penalties. This was the difference in the game. 19 for 170 yards total. Most in key situations that allowed Horizon to keep the ball.
On the positive side, the Thunder return Robinson, both Battle's, and several other key players. They could be good next season. Robinson has a chance to be special. He need's a lot of work in the off season with his mechanics and needs to get better with his decision making. However, with his size and arm strength, he could have the scouts drooling by his senior year.
Stay tuned for more playoff action on Cox7 this coming Friday. We are in the process of picking out a game. Tune in next Friday at 7 for AIA playoff action on Cox7, the home of high school sports.