After a slow start and a few other rough patches along the way, the first year of the Dan Dunn era Part 2 at Gilbert High School ended on a high note Friday.
In fact the second half of the season was mostly positives for the Tigers (4-6).
Gilbert’s 31-28 5A Division I nonregion victory over visiting Mesa Westwood was the team’s second straight and capped a 4-2 finish following a 0-4 start.
“What I just told the seniors is, it’s a tribute to those guys not giving up,” the Gilbert coach said. “They had to adjust to a new style of football. That’s hard for anybody to do, especially after being in a program with Coach (Jesse) Parker who is a pretty dominant personality. And then to come into (a situation) where I like to allow the kids to play and the coaches to coach and make decisions. … They came around at the end and came back real good.”
Seniors Brandon Bialkowski (280 yards passing) and Jesse Brantley were the stars of the night for Tigers. The duo connected 11 times for 198 yards, including touchdown passes of 43 and 20 yards.
“Me and Brandon told each other we were going to go all out tonight,” Brantley said.
Meanwhile, the Warriors (5-6) will limp into the postseason on a three-game losing streak.
“It’s not the way you want to go into the playoffs … but if we’re lucky enough to be in there, we’ll get a chance to play football another week, which is always a good thing,” Westwood coach Greg Mendez said.
The Tribune projects the Warriors will be the No. 15 seed and play undefeated Phoenix Mountain Pointe next week.
Westwood came close to improving its seeding. After falling behind 31-21 early in the fourth quarter, the Warriors made the final minutes thrilling. Backup quarterback Dakota Harlan led his team on an 83-yard TD drive, which concluded with a 25-yard pass to Nick Finkbone with 31 seconds remaining. Billy Sueing then recovered the onside kick at midfield to give the Warriors one last shot.
Gilbert’s Zac Mendez, though, came up with a sack three plays later to preserve the victory.
“I was scared for a second there,” Brantley said. “But I knew we could do it. … I’m glad we could improve the way we did after the slow start we had. Finishing like we did, it was an honor to play with all these guys.”
The second half was much tighter after a first half in which defense was apparently optional. The teams combined for 42 points and 404 yards of offense in the first 24 minutes.
Sueing had two touchdowns (a 3-yard run and a 33-yard catch), and Finkbone also threw a TD pass on reverse-option play.
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Gilbert 's opening drive goes 69 yards in eight plays, culminating in Greg Esquivel's 3-yard run to give the Tigers a 7-0 lead over Westwood with 8:06 left in the first.
Westwood scores twice in 11 seconds, as Billy Sueing goes in on a 3-yard run and then, after an onside kick, Juan Zazueta connects with Sueing on a 33-yard pass to give the Warriors a 14-7 lead late in the first quarter.
Gilbert ties the score on a 43-yard TD pass from Brandon Bialkowski to Jesse Brantley, making it 14-14 with 9:09 left in the second quarter.
Brandon Bialkowski finds Jesse Brantley again, this time on a 20-yard TD pass, to give the Tigers a 21-14 lead over Westwood with 5:47 left in the second quarter. Brantley already has six catches for 135 yards and two TDs.
Westwood ties it at 21-21 with a bit of trickery. After a reverse handoff to Nick Finkbone, Finkbone throws a 26-yard TD pass to Michael Romero with 2:03 left in the second quarter.
Brandon Christie puts Gilbert ahead with a 27-yard FG with 6:39 left in the third quarter. It's Gilbert 24, Westwood 21.
Gilbert takes a 31-21 lead over Westwood on a 11-yard TD run by Nathaniel Causey with 10:31 left in the fourth quarter.
Westwood's late touchdown isn't enough, and Gilbert escapes with a 31-28 victory.
Westwood (5-5) vs. Gilbert (3-6)
Time: 7 p.m.
Address: 1101 E. Elliot Road, Gilbert
Key matchup: Gilbert’s offense isn’t as prolific as Desert Ridge’s, but Warriors had trouble defending the pass last week in loss to Desert Ridge. Slowing the Brandon Bialkowski-to-Jesse Brantley connection will be critical for Westwood.
Key stat: Gilbert has won three of its last five games and gave Mountain View and Mesquite scares in the two losses.
The intrigue: Westwood needs some momentum heading into the playoffs after consecutive losses to Mountain Pointe and Desert Ridge.