All but shut down on the ground in the second half, Mesa Red Mountain running back Derek Molina went to the air -- with a little help from quarterback John O'Conner, that is -- to score the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds left to cap a 27-21 Mountain Lion victory over visiting Phoenix Desert Vista.
After Desert Vista scored on a 20-yard touchdown run from Anthony Kereluk to knot the game at 21 with 2:49 on the game clock -- the Thunder had battled back from a 21-7 deficit just two minutes into the second quarter -- Red Mountain ran a 12-play, 18-yard drive, running all but 20 seconds off the clock in the process -- to pull ahead for good on Molina's touchdown.
The Thunder had a final chance at the end zone -- and maybe even the win after the Thunder special teams unit blocked its sixth placekick of the season on the PAT -- after the Red Mountain's short kickoff was returned to the 50-yard line with 16 seconds to play. But three plays in, with the clock ready to strike zero, Desert Vista quarterback Cody Sokol's bomb toward the endzone was picked off inside the five by Mountain Lion Jacob Tune, sealing the Red Mountain win, and knocking the Thunder out of the Class 5A-I playoff chase for good.
"We've been plagued with turnovers, and maybe we did a little bit better job with that," Red Mountain coach Jim Jones said.
The win rights a teetering ship for the Mountain Lions, who started 5-0 only to lose its last four games and practically all early-season momentum.
"It's been so long since we've been able to get a win, maybe we forgot what it was like," Jones said. "We think this will give us a little momentum."
With a win and some help from other events around the state Desert Vista could have snuck into the playoff hunt - and possibly faced off against rival Phoenix Mountain Pointe in a first-round playoff matchup. The Thunder would have had only three wins, but Desert Vista did play the state's toughest schedule, mathematically speaking (according to the state's power ranking system).
But yet again this season, the Thunder hung tough until the end only to lose for the third time with less than a minute to play in regulation. They fell to Chandler, 29-22, with two seconds to play two weeks ago, and lost to Phoenix Pinnacle, 28-21, in their second game of the season.
"We had some back luck this year," Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said, "But you know what, I'll tell you about these kids. Tonight was a great example of how, yeah these kids had a rough year, but they didn't quite. I don't think they quit all year long. We were in some tough ball games against some tough teams. I'm proud of them."
Red Mountain's Molina ran ruffshod over the Thunder early on, pacing things with 121 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries in the first half. Yet Desert Vista found a way to shut down the Mountain Lions altogether in the second, holding the host team scoreless after intermission -- until that final minute -- and keeping Molina to just eight yards on eight second-half carries.
O'Connor was just 4-of-12 passing, but made his completions count, passing for 106 yards and two scores - the other being a 30-yard pass to Coleton Thornton near the end of the first quarter.
Red Mountain also got a defensive touchdown from Jorge Pinero, who picked up a fumble on a pass play by Desert Vista's Ryan Fisher and darted 41-yards for the score.
Despite the fumble, Fisher, who had caught just six balls all season prior to Friday, emerged as a target for Sokol early. With starting wideout Ryan Anderson on the sidelines due to a foot injury, Fisher caught three passes for 100 yards against Red Mountain -- including a late 64-yard gain to set up Kereluk's game-tying touchdown.
Desert Vista quarterback Cody Sokol, who finished with 245 yards, one touchdown and one interception through the air on 16-of-31 passing, also found fellow senior Ryne Rezac seven times for 128 yards. Sokol scored on a three-yard touchdown run to put Desert on the board late in the first quarter, and also hit senior Anders Battle with a five-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of the first half.
Kereluk had a game-high 155-yards on 16 carries with the one touchdown for the Thunder as well. Battle was stymied in the backfield most of the night, finishing with 32 yards on 10 carries.
Friday night's outing was the final game in a Desert Vista uniform for Sokol, Battle, Kereluk, Fisher, and Rezac.
Red Mountain, seeded sixth when next week's playoffs begin will stay home to face 11th-seeded Mesa at 7 p.m. next Friday.
esert Vista 7 7 0 7 21
Red Mountain 14 7 0 6 27
Desert Vista Red Mountain
1st downs 16 14
Rushes-yards 32-127 32-191
Passing yards 245 106
Att.-comp.-int 16-31-1 4-12-1
Fumbles-lost 3-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 10-105 10-95
Mesa Red Mountain improved to 6-4 overall and 2-3 in Fiesta Region play with a 27-21, last-minute victory over Phoenix Desert Vista. The win knocked the visiting Thunder out of the Class 5A-I playoff hunt.
After beating the Thunder for much of the night running the ball, Red Mountain running back Derek Molina caught a 21-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John O'Conner with 20 seconds left on the game clock to win the game for the Mountain Lions.
Player of the game
Red Mountain running back Derek Molina carried the ball 24 times for 129 yards and a touchdown, and caught the game-winning touchdown with 20 seconds to play.
The teams combined for 200 yards on 20 penalties.
RM - Molina 37 run (Falk kick)
DV - Sokol 3 run (Hernandez kick)
RM - Thornton 30 pass from O'Connor (Falk kick)
RM - Pinero 56 fumble return (Falk kick)
DV - Sokol 5 pass to Battle (Hernandez kick)
DV - Kereluk 20 run (Hernandez kick)
RM - Molina 21 pass from O'Connor (kick blocked)