It was an ending most would expect between two of the top teams in the 6A Conference.
With just under two minutes left in regulation, Highland coach Brock Farrel put all of his trust into his players after an 11-yard touchdown run by Daniel Wood.
The Hawks lined up for what could have turned out to be the game-winning two-point conversion. Highland sophomore quarterback Gage Dayley rolled right before throwing back across the formation. However, Desert Vista senior Braeden Belnap awaited the pass, forcing it to the ground.
The pass break up by Belnap sealed a hard-fought, emotional victory for Desert Vista over Highland, 42-41, on Friday night.
“That two-point conversion, it felt good, but I knew the game wasn’t over yet,” Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said. “I knew we had to get the onside kick. But our kids managed to do it, they pulled through and I’m proud of them for that.”
The game itself brought a playoff-like atmosphere, as fans supporting both schools filled both sets of bleachers. Hours before the game coaches from both sides expressed the importance of the contest to players.
Both Desert Vista and Highland were vying for a spot in the Open Division playoff at the end of the season. As both teams entered with a loss on the year, it was very likely that the loser found themselves on the outside looking in.
“We had momentum and we thought we would try to sneak out of Ahwatukee with the win,” Highland coach Brock Farrel said. “Our defense struggled tonight. In all honesty, I didn’t think we could stop their run-game at the 10-yard line (in overtime).”
The loss for Highland, however, had no indication on how the Hawks played throughout the night. It was the combined effort from both teams, mixed with big plays, that turned into an instant classic.
Desert Vista turned to its ground-and-pound style of offense on its first drive, running senior tailback Tyson Grubbs between the tackles to challenge Highland’s front-seven.
It was effective, as the Thunder marched 78 yards down the field on their first drive. A 10-yard run by senior quarterback Parker Navarro capped off Desert Vista’s drive.
Highland, however, answered immediately.
The Hawks looked to senior running back Daniel Wood to lead them down the field. He capped off a long drive with a 6-yard touchdown run of his own.
“Our guys came through in key situations,” Farrel said. “I’m proud of our kids because they struggled but didn’t give up. Even through that, they found a way to give us an opportunity to win and I’m proud of them for that.”
It wasn’t until the second quarter when Desert Vista started to get its offense going through the air. Navarro found senior wideout Elijah Ervin wide open for a 34-yard touchdown to extend Desert Vista’s lead.
Navarro again found the end zone on Desert Vista’s next drive on 10-yard run, his second of the night.
“I told our offense this afternoon that I had a feeling tonight was going to be their night,” Hinds said. “We hadn’t put it all together yet but tonight they did. The effort from Tyson, having Parker make those reads and throw the football, I think right now we are on a serious roll.”
Navarro managed to do it all for the Thunder, as he completed 10-of-13 passes for 191 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 87 yards and two more touchdowns.
Both of Navarro’s passing touchdowns were to Ervin, who caught six passes for 162 yards.
It was the fourth time this season Ervin eclipsed 100 receiving yards in a game.
“It was a big game, so I knew I had to go out there and ball out for my teammates,” Ervin said. “Just to go out there and do what I did felt really good.”
Trailing by two touchdowns late in the first half, Dayley orchestrated a quick drive down the field and found senior wideout Tru Tanner for the 13-yard score to trim Desert Vista’s lead at the half.
It didn’t take long for Highland’s offense to picked up where it left off in the third quarter, as Wood races up the far sideline for a 55-yard score to tie the game.
Both teams traded scores before Desert Vista managed to jump out to a 42-28 lead. But a 2-yard run by junior running back Max Davis, followed by Wood’s touchdown set up Highland for the 2-point conversion that it was unable to convert.
“We were all just getting ready for the play, we were nervous,” Ervin said. “When we saw the incompletion, we just got so excited. We knew the game was over.”
Both Grubbs and Wood delivered strong performances in a marquee game.
Wood rushed 16 times for 198 yards and four touchdowns. Grubbs, meanwhile, had 167 yards on the ground and two touchdowns, one of which a 100-yard kickoff return in the second half. For Grubbs, the win over Highland gave him a feeling of redemption. Last season against the Hawks, he suffered a season-ending foot injury.
He wanted to make a statement.
“I knew this was going to be a really big game,” Grubbs said. “It meant the world to me. I knew I had to step up.”
The nail-biting finish was brought along the excitement many expected in the first year of the Open Division playoff format.
Now 4-2 (0-1) on the year, Highland is still in contention to sneak in barring the final rankings at the end of the season. Should the Hawks be left out, they will likely be a favorite to contend for the 6A title.
Meanwhile, at 4-1 (1-0), Desert Vista controls its own destiny as the Thunder enter the meat of their region play schedule. They will travel to Desert Ridge (2-4, 0-1) next week while Highland heads back out to Ahwatukee to take on Mountain Pointe (1-4, 0-1).
“This game was massive, it was everything,” Grubbs said. “It gave us a lot of momentum. We can’t stop now. We are just getting started.”
DV 7 14 14 7 -- 42
HHS 7 7 14 13 – 41
DV – Navarro 10 run (Hauck kick), 4:53
HHS – Wood 8 run (Ray kick), 1:26
DV – Navarro 34 pass to Ervin (Hauck kick), 7:22
DV – Navarro 10 run (Hauck kick), 4:35
HHS – Dayley 13 pass to Crandall (Ray kick), 1:39
HHS – Wood 55 run (Ray kick), 10:00
DV – Grubbs 100 kick return (Hauck kick), 9:44
HHS – Wood 46 run (Ray kick), 8:51
DV – Navarro 69 pass to Ervin (Hauck kick), 6:30
DV – Grubbs 1 run (Hauck kick), 5:08
HHS – Davis 2 run (Ray kick), 4:29
HHS – Wood 11 run, 1:26