Highland coach Pete Wahlheim paced lightly in the end zone after he spoke to his players on Friday night. He was in his thoughts as he waited for the regular post-game pomp and circumstance in the form of a brief chat with visiting reporters.
It took him less than a question before the tears began to invade his face, but had difficulty maintaining his composure.
“I'm sorry,” he said as fought to find some sense of composure. “I don't usually do this.”
It might not have been his normal reaction, but the tears that came to him were justified given the events that occurred just a few minutes earlier. There was the late fumble recovery, a few key first down conversions created by good Hawks football and bad Basha football, a missed game-winning field goal attempt that, ironically, benefited the team, and an ensuing 27-yarder by Noah Miller that went through the uprights with a second left to give Highland a 24-21 road win.
The game didn't start off well for the Hawks (6-2), who didn't convert a first down until there was 7:45 left in the second quarter, and didn't convert a third-down attempt in the first half. In the meantime, the Bears (4-4) picked up two touchdowns on Zach Werlinger touchdown passes to Doc O'Connor and Trey Nall on the way to a 14-7 halftime lead.
Given the Hawks' offensive woes, the second touchdown pass Werlinger threw to O'Connor with a minute and a half left in the third to give Basha a 21-7 lead looked like it would be the nail in the coffin for Highland. That was especially true given the lucky nature of the situation – punter D.J. Arnson mishandled the snap and barely-but-effectively squeezed off a short punt before he was taken down by a couple of Highland defenders - then had the ball bounce off the back of a Highland player and into the arms of a Basha teammate at the Hawks' 34 yard line.
But the Hawks offense clicked after that touchdown to march down the field en route to a 2-yard touchdown run from Ryan McCord to chop the deficit by seven. After an impressive stand by the defense and an unfortunate 30-yard punt by Arnson, Highland tied things up with a repeat touchdown run by McCord with six minutes left in the game.
Basha took its shot at a win on the ensuing drive, as the Bears moved the ball into Hawks' territory after Werlinger found O'Connor for a huge third-down conversion. But halfback Rajhan Meriwether lost the ball at the Hawks' 36-yard line – one of two fumbles Basha lost in Highland's territory during the game – which gave the visitors about four-and-a-half minutes to try and go home with a win.
The drive to victory began ominously, with Highland getting itself into a third and 21 situation that quarterback Blake Young couldn't convert. Fortunately for the Hawks, Basha earned a roughing the passer penalty that provided Highland with a free first down.
More time came off the clock as Highland edged deeper into Basha's side of the field, all the way to the Bears' 23-yard line with 55 seconds left. Highland opted to go for the 40-yard field goal that kicker Noah Miller pushed left, but a turnover on downs did not come for Basha; rather, the Bears were penalized for roughing the kicker, which gave Highland one more opportunity to win.
“You can't make those mistakes and win against tough teams,” said Basha coach Bernie Busken.
Highland got the ball to the Bears' 10 yard line and milked the clock down to a second – enough time for Miller to hop on the field for an attempt at a game-winning 27-yard field goal. This time, the kick was true, and Highland left Chandler with a surprising three-point victory.
Before the team could depart, Wahlheim lingered on the field and tried to combat the tears so he could outline what went right in the win. He emphasized the pride he has in his team – it was the very first thing he said – talked about how the seniors deserved a win like this, and credited his players for their consistent resilience when they've fought back against defeat this season.
“I don't know how good we are, but when you have kids like this, you always have a chance,” he said.
Highland 24, Basha 21
Highland 0 7 0 17 – 24
Basha 14 0 7 0 – 21
First Downs: Highland 11, Basha 15
Rushing: Highland 42-139, Basha 33-147
Passing (Comp.-Att.-TD-INT): Highland 9-16-125-1-0, Basha 15-22-163-3-1
Fumbles-lost: Highland 2-1, Basha 5-2
Penalties-yards: Highland 3-30, Basha 7-80
Basha – Doc O'Connor 30-yard reception from Zach Werlinger (Cade Thompson kick)
Basha – Trey Nall six-yard reception from Werlinger (Thompson kick)
Highland – Dusty Cook 16-yard reception from Blake Young (Noah Miller kick)
Basha – O'Connor 23-yard reception from Zach Werlinger (Cade Thompson kick)
Highland – Ryan McCord two-yard run (Miller kick)
Highland – McCord two-yard run (Miller kick)
Highland – Miller 27-yard field goal
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