Given how hard Desert Ridge quarterback Jordan Becerra ran – to the tune of 239 yards on 25 carries, it would be understandable if the Desert Vista defense doubled – even tripled – up on Becerra with hopes of slowing down the Jaguar offense Friday night.
Just one problem: What would the Thunder do with running back Joey Counts, he of the 26-carry, 171-yard effort?
No. 10 Desert Ridge has done that for the better part of six weeks as the Jaguars earned the first state championship berth in school history following their 41-17 victory in a 5A Division I semifinal over No. 3 seed Desert Vista on Friday at Mesquite High School.
Desert Ridge will meet two-time defending champion Hamilton on Dec. 13 at 8 p.m. at University of Phoenix Stadium.
“Man I tell you. That’s a great football team. I have to hand it to Desert Ridge and (head coach Jeremy Hathcock),” Desert Vista coach Dan Hinds said. “They really got it going on right now. Very impressive bunch of kids.”
Incidentally, Hathcock had similar praise to hand down on Hinds’ kids – who despite the lopsided final score, were a play or two away from leading by a field goal with six minutes left.
With Desert Ridge (10-3) ahead 21-17 at that six-minute mark, a pass from Desert Vista quarterback Hunter Rodriguez looked to hit Thunder receiver Shaw Loomer in stride.
It was an easy pitch-and-catch with nothing but daylight around Loomer, but fell incomplete.
While Hinds was quick to point out after the game that that lone play didn’t lose the game for the Thunder – or inversely win the game for the Jaguars – Desert Ridge made the most of its second life.
Still leading by just four inside 3 minutes to play, the Jaguars scored on touchdown runs of 55, 20 and 65 by Becerra, Counts, and Becerra again, to extend the margin to an unreachable 24-point final differential.
“They did the same thing to Mountain Pointe. Look at that score and all of a sudden you see the game and at the end they go, 'Bam-bam,'” Hinds said. “That’s the kind of offense they have. They’re so explosive.”
Hathcock noted that it was Desert Vista’s ability to capitalize on the relatively slow start by Desert Ridge that made the ballgame tight for the better part of 47 minutes.
“They did a good job in the first half, we made some mental mistakes … it swung their way; They made some mistakes and it swung our way,” Hathcock said. “(Against) Mountain Pointe we had six lead changes; Chandler, I believe we had five or six lead changes.”
Desert Vista cut a 13-0 Desert Ridge lead on a 15-yard pass from Rodriguez to tight end Sean Coffinger – that rounded out the first-half scoring at 13-7 – and then took the lead at 14-13 well into the third quarter on a 1-yard run by Michael Ingrassia.
“We knew it was going to be a shootout. I knew at that point that wasn’t going to do it,” Hinds said of his team’s short-lived lead.
Hinds was right. Counts countered just two minutes later, blasting off a 43-yard touchdown run that put the Jaguars up for good.
“Our motto for this season was to finish," Becerra said of Desert Ridge’s ability to score during the game’s final minutes. The last few seasons we haven’t been able to finish. So we just got the ball and ran and ran.”
Michael Ingrassia, Desert Vista’s most potent offensive weapon all season, was bottled up most of the night. He caught two short passes and ran for 57 yards on 10 carries. Rodriguez completed 19 of 28 passes for 171 yards.
“The scoreboard definitely didn’t say what that game was,” Ingrassia said. “This team played its heart out.”
Coffinger, who started much of last season at quarterback for the Thunder before shifting to tight end this year, caught seven passes for 96 yards in his final game for the Thunder.
“Like coach said, we were picked to come in last in the Fiesta. We did last year. The seniors especially, we came out with a goal. We said “Let’s be the seniors that turn this thing around.”
In addition to the combined four rushing touchdowns from Becerra and Counts, Becerra also connected with Paris Clark for a 21-yard passing score in the first quarter. That touchdown was book-ended by field goals of 30 and 41 yards by Danny Berzins.
For Desert Vista, a 31-yard field goal by John Gieseking, coupled with the touchdowns by Coffinger and Ingrassia, rounded out the scoring.
“It was a great run,” Hinds said of his team’s trek from a 2-8 record in 2009 to one step away from a state title game berth this season. “Especially early, we had that shadow of last year hanging over our head. We lost a couple of close ones early in the season, and it could have gone either way. They chose this path.
“This was probably my favorite season coaching because of everything that went on – watching them transform into the team they are.”