When the ball went through the uprights on the 37-yard field goal by Phoenix Sunnyslope’s Josh Lang with about 6 minutes left, increasing Cienega’s deficit to 10 points, coach Pat Nugent walked alone near the Bobcats’ sideline, staring at the ground looking for answers.
Not far from him was injured running back Gabe Levy, appearing helpless out with an ankle injury since the start of the second half. Without the tough-running productive running back, who gained 79 yards on 12 carries, the Bobcats’ offense could not muster a sustained drive against the Vikings’ defense.
Three straight possessions resulted in a punt at that point. Nugent tried all three of his quarterbacks throughout the course of the game and all found trouble igniting Cienega’s offense.
They were a combined 6 of 17 passing for only 45 yards at that point. Each had been sacked once. Starter Ryan Swoger was particularly frustrated, fumbling the ball away in the first quarter in Sunnyslope territory. He sat the rest of the first half.
Down two possessions, Cienega needed the pass to complement the run to get downfield fast.
“When Gabe Levy goes down it kind of puts a bump in the road, so we struggled a little bit to find who we were,” Nugent said.
“We were getting down a little bit,” added wideout/safety Sebastian Felix.
First down Cienega pic.twitter.com/mhmvAbYtYg
All of a sudden, Swoger went from looking lost to losing his trepidation against Sunnyslope’s defense. It helped that running back backups Tristan Pralle and C.J. Flores came to life.
Pralle ran for an 11-yard gain looking like a pinball off Sunnyslope’s defenders. Swoger had a big gain of 14 yards to keep the drive alive. He completed a 12-yard sideline pattern pass to Felix that set up Felix’s 10-yard touchdown reception with 2:54 left, cutting the Vikings’ lead to 24-21.
Cienega kicker Juliano Reis then executed the perfect onside kick with the ball somehow eluding Sunnyslope’s players before landing in the arms of Tre Denetso at the Vikings’ 36.
“We work on that all time, never thought we’d get it to work,” Nugent said.
Faced with a fourth-and-7 at the Sunnyslope 24, the Bobcats once again faced what seemed to be insurmountable odds down by a field goal. What now? Nugent could have called on Reis, who has made a 42-yarder this season. Instead, Nugent sensed the momentum generated behind Swoger and stuck with the quarterback.
“Struggled early but made some great passes there,” Nugent described the play of Swoger, who wound up completing 7 of 10 passes for 79 yards — 22 of them on a play on that fourth down in which he eluded defenders and got the ball to a leaping Caleb Kidney, who stayed on his feet long enough to get to the Sunnyslope 2 with 1:20 remaining.
Sunnyslope’s coaching staff argued the play should have been nullified because of ineligible players down field. Cienega set up for a screen pass with its linemen running down field for a block, but Swoger turned away from that side of the field after feeling the rush and heaved the ball to Kidney.
“Never pretty, but playoffs are all about moving on,” Nugent said.
Pass to the Sunnyslope 2! pic.twitter.com/Wn6zLQB8aD
That was one play among many in the game that could have decided the outcome, such as Cienega moving the ball on the previous possession behind a struggling Swoger up to that point with backup running backs like Pralle and Flores coming to life. And then there was that onside kick that caught Sunnyslope off guard.
Also, in the third quarter, Sunnyslope could have been pinned deep in its territory after an apparent sack. An inadvertent flag was thrown, however, allowing the Vikings to later punt the ball away avoiding a dangerous field-position situation.
At any rate, a flag was not thrown on what appeared to be a penalty of linemen downfield on the pass to Kidney. On the next play, Flores punched it in with a run over the middle, up the gut of Sunnyslope’s defense, with 1:05 left to put Cienega up 27-24.
Cienega’s extra-point attempt was blocked, setting up the opportunity for Lang to potentially tie the game if prolific passing quarterback Niko Haen could get the Vikings in field goal position with enough time remaining to make that happen.
Haen, a college prospect recruited by NAU and others, completed 17 of 34 passes for 222 yards, spreading his attempts to six receivers, most notably his brother David Haen (10 catches for 132 yards and a touchdown).
After an incompletion at Sunnyslope’s 24-yard line, Niko Haen felt the heavy rush from defensive ends Damaggio Strevay and Bryce Marks and threw the ball away from his own 5 toward the sideline, where Felix leaped high to snare it for the game-clinching interception at the 26.
Adding to the chaotic finish, Sunnyslope’s coaching staff went on to the field after the interception and a coach was ejected for vehemently arguing the non-call on Cienega’s previous possession.
“The corners dropped back and the safeties get down low,” Felix described the coverage of his late interception. “I was just reading the quarterback the whole time. I see him throw it up, so I said I had to make the play and I did.”
That was Felix’s second interception of the game to go along with his touchdown reception in the fourth quarter (finishing with three catches for 32 yards). He also had a 20-yard run, 22-yard kickoff return and handled the punts, averaging 38 yards on five of those.
Sebastian Felix’s performance in @CienegaFootball‘s thrilling 27-24 win over Sunnyslope in first round of 5A playoffs:
2 INTs, including game-saving one late in game.
TD catch that cut the lead to 24-21 before Cienega recovered an onside kick pic.twitter.com/709hW5VEqC
“We talk about potential,” Nugent said. “Sebastian has not had the greatest year (matching his interception total of the season last night) but he’s had some big games lately. He’s really stepped up to big-time moments. That’s who we thought Sebastian Felix could be all year long.”
Felix added, “We’re not going to stop,” no matter the situation. Only 6 minutes of game-time previously, Cienega was down those two possessions after that Sunnyslope field goal and Nugent and his team looking somewhat bewildered as the No. 7 seed playing the No. 10 Vikings.
“We’re just going to keep battling. We’re not going to stop. That’s what we did. That’s what we do every day in practice and the weight room. We’re not going to stop,” Felix said.
Cienega, 9-2 and on an eight-game winning streak, is in the state quarterfinals for the fourth time in Nugent’s five seasons as head coach. His teams are 2-1 at that stage, including a 38-35 win over Marana two years ago behind Jamarye Joiner’s 322 yards passing and 245 yards rushing.
.@CienegaFootball‘s Dillon Silva: “We just had to rally. I knew we had it in us. We just had to make some plays because we have a whole bunch of athletes.” He is one of them making some big tackles at linebacker. pic.twitter.com/DZfhbKI4H6
The team they faced after that win — an unbeaten Notre Dame Prep team — eliminated them 37-34 after Joiner and Co. led with 8 minutes left and had a potentially game-winning drive stall at the 50 at the end.
Notre Dame Prep — with junior linebacker J.D. Roberts (18 tackles for loss and is getting looked at by Arizona and ASU) — is 10-1 as the No. 2 seed heading into Friday’s home game after beating No. 15 Verrado 38-28 in a closer-than-expected outcome.
“Our staff, our kids, our program, our strength coach — all those guys — have built our program to where it is,” said Nugent, who is 46-13 at Cienega and 136-56 overall in 17 years of coaching at the high school level. “Four years in a row in the quarterfinals is pretty special so we’re excited about where we’re at. We’ll worry about Notre Dame tomorrow. We’re going to enjoy these next 12 hours.”
Well deserved after those last six minutes against Sunnyslope.
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.