One of the biggest differences with this year’s Desert Vista football program compared to year’s past is their inability to give up when plays don’t go their way.
They showed resiliency against Perry in the first week of the season despite the loss and bounced back in a big way from that in the two weeks after that. Against Highland on Friday night, Desert Vista knew it would have to play its best game against last year’s 6A runner-up that figures to be in contention for a spot in the Open Division this season.
The Thunder played up to Highland’s level on Friday night for an entire half before the Hawks’ got the better of them in their 30-14 win. But make no mistake, Ty Wisdom’s team handled the adversity and loss in a way that made him proud when the final buzzer sounded.
“Brock does a great job, they’re a physical football team,” Wisdom said. “Credit to Highland, they do a lot of good things. That’s a good team.”
Desert Vista’s struggles came as a surprise to many after an impressive first drive in which junior quarterback Jackson Akins found junior wideout Michael Allison on fourth down for a 51-yard touchdown. It was the first score of the game and was a promising sign for a Thunder team desperate to prove itself after last season.
But the offense was limited the rest of the way. Akins was 10 of 19 on the night for 117 yards and the one touchdown. He had a late interception while trying to drive Desert Vista down the field with under two minutes remaining.
Senior running back Devon Grubbs, who had already eclipsed the 500-yard rushing mark in just three games, was held to just 21 yards on 10 carries. He exited the game late in the second quarter with a shoulder injury and didn’t return.
That paved the way for sophomore Christian Clark to take over lead back duties for the Thunder. He had 13 total carries for 52 yards against a physical Highland defense. But he was able to find paydirt on a 5-yard run in the fourth quarter, which was the Thunder’s first touchdown since the opening minutes of the game.
“You never wish or think one of your teammates is going to get hurt,” Clark said. “We didn’t want that to happen, and I knew I had to step up big time. Especially because of Devon’s caliber of talent. He told me to do it for him.”
Highland coach Brock Farrel admitted he was overthinking the plays he was calling and the offense as a whole. So, they went back to the basics of the Highland offense, which left the game in the hands of its big and physical offensive line.
It worked for the Hawks, who scored 20 third-quarter points.
“We just went back to what we do well and that’s run the ball,” Farrel said. “We loaded up the box, put tight ends in the game and let our O-line work. I think I just over schemed things in the first half. We made it simpler, and the kids executed better.”
Highland initially struggled against a much-improved Desert Vista team. The Hawks settled for a field goal early in the first quarter and didn’t find the end zone until just 17 seconds remained in the half, when senior running back Steven Trujillo led the Hawks on a 63-yard drive that ended with a 7-yard run from fellow tailback Chance Cauthen.
Their 10 first-half points were the lowest total through two quarters for the Hawks this season. But they quickly found their rhythm in the second half.
“We had a rough start this game and last week, we had a rough finish,” Trujillo said. “We were getting hyped up in the locker room and we came out and had everything under control.”
Trujillo opened the third quarter with a 53-yard touchdown in which he bounced off three would-be tacklers before turning up the far sideline for the score. It quickly tilted any remaining momentum from Desert Vista’s side to Highland’s.
On their next drive, senior quarterback Gage Dayley found senior wideout Tautua Pauga for a 52-yard touchdown. Just four minutes of game time later, Dayley called his own number and scored from 19 yards out. He finished 4 of 10 for 106 yards and the touchdown. Trujillo — who had a team-high 168 yards rushing — Dayley, Cauthen and senior Brady Trejo combined for 264 yards on the ground and three touchdowns.
Despite a lopsided third quarter, in which Highland scored 20-unanswered points, Wisdom credited his team for their fight against one of the state’s best. As the Thunder enter the meat of its schedule — with games against Basha and Hamilton in the next two weeks — he stressed the importance of them staying together and continue to take strides in the right direction.
Despite the loss, the morale of the team remained high.
“I’m proud of the way our kids fought,” Wisdom said. Any time you lost a player like Grubbs, it’s hard. We had a lot of mental mistakes tonight but now we just have to get stronger. It obviously doesn’t get easier.
“We are just going to focus on us. That’s what we’ve always done and that’s how we get better and get a chance to go compete in the playoffs.”