Desert Vista seemed to have limped into the first round of the 6A playoffs after falling to Queen Creek in the regular-season finale last week with numerous contributors battling injuries.
But after a few days of rest, the Thunder were near full strength against a Basha team that has also had its fair share of injuries this season.
Both teams dominated at times in the game, but it was the Desert Vista’s defense that ultimately led the sixth-ranked Thunder to a 52-26 win over No. 11 Basha on Friday night to advance to the 6A quarterfinals.
“I have to be honest with you, the week we had and looking in the eyes of my players throughout the whole game, I had no doubt we would win this game,” Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said.
“This is what we look like when healthy. We are finally back to that point and we are pretty excited right now.”
Desert Vista came out looking to establish dominance through the air. Senior quarterback Parker Navarro, who has battled the flu for the past two days, didn’t let that slow him down as he started the game a perfect 6-of-6 through the air for two touchdowns.
Navarro’s first touchdown pass came in the form of a 78-yard bomb to senior athletes Colby Humphrey. The second, a 34-yard pass to senior Elijah Ervin. A field goal by junior kicker Marlon Hauck gave Desert Vista a 17-0 lead after the first quarter.
At that point, Navarro had already thrown for 204 yards.
“Talk about toughing it out,” Hinds said. “Parker came in today and said he was ready to go. He was struggling, but you would have never known it. Him and Ervin, they’re special. We have a lot of pieces in our offense and they are just two of them.”
Despite a lopsided deficit early on, Basha never quit.
The Bears quickly found a rhythm on the ground led by junior running back Caleb Jones. The Thunder seemed to have little answers for Basha’s run-game, as the Bears pounded the ball up the middle eventually leading to an 8-yard run by senior Zion Williams.
Basha caught Desert Vista off guard with an onside kick, recovering it and eventually cutting the Thunder’s lead to just four points after sophomore quarterback Josh Sink found junior wideout Trent Pennington for an 8-yard touchdown.
“We had a lot of young kids in their first playoff and they needed to calm their nerves a little bit,” Basha coach Chris McDonald said. “Once we got down, we used that second quarter to kind of get something going.”
Basha didn’t stop there.
Jones found the end zone right out of the half to give Basha the lead. Within just over 5 minutes taken off the game clock between the second and third quarters, the Bears has outscored Desert Vista 20-0.
Then, however, something clicked for Desert Vista.
“We decided to go back to what we were doing in the first quarter, which worked,” Desert Vista senior running back Tyson Grubbs said. “We broke a couple of long runs and then it was on from there. We just made good adjustments and our defense picked it up.”
Grubbs broke loose up the middle for a 41-yard touchdown to give Desert Vista the lead with just under a minute to play in the third quarter.
Sophomore running back Devon Grubbs then gave Desert Vista some breathing room with an 11-yard touchdown run of his own. With momentum flipped to their side, the Thunder defense buckled down and delivered a dominating fourth-quarter performance led by senior linebacker and captain, Zack McGinnis.
“We didn’t want this to be our last game,” McGinnis said. “We have been together for four years and we didn’t want this to be our last. We played for each other so we could play another game.”
McGinnis led the charge for the Thunder defense to limit Basha’s run game in the final two quarters. Facing a two-score deficit, Basha turned to the air for answers.
Unfortunately, the Bears couldn’t find any.
Three straight offensive possessions for Basha ended in pick-sixes for Desert Vista. Senior defensive back Noah Takas returned the first interception 57 yards for the touchdown. Ervin, who doubles as a defensive back for the Thunder, got his 65-yard pick-six off a tipped pass. Junior defensive back Troy Allen completed the fourth-quarter hat-trick with a 30-yard interception return of his own.
“I’ve never had a team do that before and let me tell you, it’s a lot of fun,” Hinds said. “It takes a lot of pressure off us with a defense like that. That’s what made the difference.”
The loss for Basha brings the end of the 2019 season, as the Bears finish 4-7 overall.
While it wasn’t the outcome any of the Basha faithful had hoped for, McDonald remains proud of the way his team managed to fight through adversity all season.
“I feel bad for the seniors, but I think they will be better people because of this year,” McDonald said. “They never quit. This is a good group. They’re going to be missed.”
Desert Vista advances to the 6A quarterfinals next week where it will face off against third-ranked Perry. Last season, the Pumas knocked off the Thunder en route to their second straight championship appearance.
Needless to say, this is a matchup Desert Vista had hoped for.
“It’s payback time,” Hinds laughed. “This is a game I know will mean a lot to all the guys that were here last year.
“They’re going to get after it.”