The Thunder (9-3) will now face the Hurricane Tigers in the 3A State Title game next Friday.
Cedar coach Todd Peacock rolled the dice in the very first seconds of the game. Cedar (6-6) attempted an onside kick on the game’s opening kickoff, but Desert Hills reacted well and recovered the ball on the 38-yard line. Though Thunder starting quarterback Porter Harris broke a finger on his throwing hand in last week’s game, he came out and went under center.
He fired a completion to his tight end Josh Anderson for seven yards on first down and showed any doubters that he was up for playoff action. He hit Cole Kiser for an eight-yard strike, a few players later, he found Kiser again for another eight yards. On a third down and one, Desert Hills was flagged for a false start, and Harris was sacked for a nine-yard loss on the ensuing third down and five by Cedar’s Bryson Haynie and it forced the Thunder to punt.
Cedar started its first drive from the 20 and it only took four plays for the crowd to see the explosiveness and talent of quarterback John Ursua. On second down, Ursua passed to his receiver Kaden Garrett for a 31-yard completion. After running back Hayden Bishop ran up the middle for three yards, Ursua, on second and seven from Desert Hills’ 44-yard line, maneuvered through some high traffic and as a Thunder defensive back closed to put a hit on the shifty quarterback, Ursua dipped his shoulder. The body-lean sent the defender on skids and Ursua jettisoned down the field for a 44-yard touchdown. Some in the stands have seen him do his magical moves before, many others had not, but all were in unison in their song—oh!
After the good PAT, Cedar went up 7-0 a little over halfway through the first quarter. Desert Hill coach Jake Nelson was not reserved to complimenting the opposing quarterback’s greatness.
“John Ursua is absolutely the most amazing athlete I have ever seen on a [high school] football field,” said Nelson. “We have some great football players on our side, but that kid as far as athletic abilities, is incredible.”
The Thunder started its second drive on the 22-yard line. On first down, Harris scrambled from some pressure and lit up the Cedar defense with a 40-yard pass to receiver Ty Rutledge (five receptions, 96 yards and one touchdown). The Thunder went to their ace running back Mike Needham for two rushes that put the ball on the Cedar 27. A few plays later, on the 18, Harris was intercepted by Braiden French to end the Thunder scoring threat.
The Thunder defense disallowed any Cedar advancement and forced a punt. Desert Hills took over at their own 14-yard line, and Harris ran on first down for a good gain, but he was hit hard, and the ball was dislodged. Cedar recovered and took over at the Thunder 34. The first quarter expired after two minimal rushes by running back Hayden Bishop and Ursua. A few plays later, Ursua attempted to pass on a third down and 11 from the Desert Hills’ 23-yard line, and was intercepted by Thunder defensive back Bud Pope. The senior captain was duped earlier on a similar play.
“I didn’t bite on the hitch, and I just stayed back, and it [ball] came right to me,” Pope said. “I got beat on that very first pass, I learned my lesson.”
Pope’s near the red zone denial, matched Cedar’s earlier takeaway on the Desert Hills red zone mishap.
The Thunder started at the 20 and moved 80 yards on 10 plays to tie the score at 7-7 with 6:32 remaining in the first half. The drive was diverse; it demonstrated the multiple Thunder weaponry. Needham (32 carries, 165 yards, and three receptions for 23 yards) ran four times for 15 yards and caught a 16-yard pass from Harris. Harris went 5-for-5 for 62 yards on the drive and it culminated in a six-yard pass to Kiser.
“We really moved the ball on them, it just seemed like we were kind of killing ourselves at times, whether it be penalties or turnovers,” Nelson said.
The teams traded punts and then Cedar fumbled the ball with 2:57 left in the first half giving Desert Hills the ball on the Cedar 22-yard line The Thunder cashed in via a 37-yard field goal by Tavo Allegria to make the score 10-7 with 1:19 left.
Cedar started on their 22, and changed quarterbacks. Kaden Garrett came in and tried to throw a bomb over the top of the Thunder defense to a streaking Ursua, except Pope had superior position and made his second interception of the half.
At halftime, the Thunder team talked about seizing the game.
“Mainly it [halftime talk] was about defense,” Pope said. “It was about not letting them get any momentum. Don’t let them get any intensity going. We had to force a three and out on their first drive and we did.”
Later in the quarter, Ursua gashed the Thunder on a 68-yard rush. He appeared to have been stopped, and was going down to the turf, but planted his free arm down into the turf, stopping himself. He bounced from the arm extension, and left everyone behind on his sprint to put Cedar up 14-10.
“With him, you can’t assume that he’s down,” Nelson said. “You have to make sure that he’s on the ground.”
Later on, the Thunder forced a Cedar punt and began with great field position on their own 48-yard line. Desert Hills also switched quarterbacks, bringing in Nate Brinker for Harris. Brinker proved to be ready for the dramatic final 13 minutes of semifinal action. He guided them 52 yards on a scoring drive with the big play being a 37-yard touchdown pass to Ty Rutledge, putting the Thunder up 17-14 on the first play of the fourth quarter.
“Our two quarterbacks, it’s just amazing that we have two kids we can throw into the game to lead us,” Nelson said. “We have so much confidence in both of them, it doesn’t matter who’s in there, we’re supporting them. You can see how this team sticks together, whoever we plug in; the kids are going to work hard for each other.”
Desert Hills forced another Cedar punt and then it was time for the show of force by the Thunder offensive line. They made available the opportunity for Needham to essentially be the death nail to Cedar’s chances.
Desert Hills went on the 79-yard tank-like rumble down the field. They consumed over five minutes of clock, and Needham carried the ball seven times for 32 hard-hitting plays.
“Mike Needham got rolling and once that kid gets going and is feeling healthy, there’s almost nothing he can’t do,” Nelson said. “He’s just tough, I don’t know how to explain it. He was running behind our big old line and making cuts like he used to early in the season.”
At the end of the grinding drive, Brinker threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Kiser to raise the Thunder’s lead to 23-14 with 4:47 left on the clock.
Cedar was in pass-mode and Pope embraced it. Ursua dropped back around his own 15, and threw the ball to midfield. Pope closed on the ball and captured his third interception of the game.
The Thunder only shaved a minute off the clock and had to punt. Cedar began from the 14 with 3:07 left. Ursua scampered for 55 yards and Desert Hills added to Cedar’s gain by committing a personal foul hit out of bounds. Cedar scored a 25-yard touchdown from a flea-flicker like play and made the score 23-21 with 2:38. They attempted their second onside kick and weren’t successful.
The Thunder turned to Needham runs to force Cedar to use its timeouts. Needham rushed five times for 16 yards; it was enough to set-up the last play victory formation.
Coach Nelson said his team was awe-inspiring during the week and it made him want to revisit his playing days
“All week long I could look in their eyes, I could tell they were amped up, they were to ready play,” Nelson said. “They knew they had made some mistakes the first time [playing Cedar]; they just wanted an opportunity to prove to everybody that we are a better team than what we were in that first game.
“I am very proud of them. I’m telling you, today at school was a nightmare [waiting for the game]. I mean, I wished I could have suited up; I would have been good for maybe one play with them. I would have loved to been [out] there [on the field].”
The captain with three interceptions echoed his coach.
“It was amazing. No one had any doubt,” Pope said. “Everybody was confident. We did come out a little soft, but we got going and played like we can.”
The Thunder remained in their locker room for about 20 minutes, soaking in their success while media, family and friends waited outside. What they were enjoying caused emotions to surface. When the team exited the door, some were wearing moistness on their cheeks.
“It was one of the best times of my life,” Pope said about the locker room scene. “I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a freshman. This is the biggest moment of my life. This is awesome. I know next week is going to be bigger, but this is fun, I love it.”
Desert Hills’ offense amassed 369 yards on 69 plays, converted 4-of-11 third downs, registered 24 first downs and controlled the clock with 33 minutes of possession. Starting quarterback Porter Harris was exceptional before he exited the game. He was 15-of-17 for 166 yards (one touchdown and one interception). Brinker produced 43 yards on 2-of-3 passing and two touchdown passes in the relief performance.
Thunder’s Needham had 33 carries for 166 yards (three receptions for 23 yards), Ty Rutledge caught five receptions for 96 yards and one touchdown, tight end Josh Anderson caught three passes for 44 yards, and Cole Kiser had five passes for 39 yards and two touchdowns.
Bud Pope’s three interceptions and four tackles were highlight in production for the Thunder, but Peter Brown (five tackles), Brock Johnson and Travis LaGrone (four tackles apiece) added great play too. Brinker also had a sack on defense to go along with his great fill-in quarterbacking.
Cedar’s offense was hampered as evidenced by only nine first downs, and 1-of-8 third down attempts. The Reds produced 282 yards and had the ball for 15 minutes.
John Ursua rushed for 166 yards on nine carries and two touchdowns and passed 4-of-10 for 61 yards and two interceptions. Hayden Bishop rushed 10 times for 22 yards. Kaden Garrett passed for 25 yards on 1-of-3 attempts (one touchdown and one interception).
Kole Halladay caught a 25-yard touchdown, and Christian Peacock was the only Cedar receiver with more than one reception (two catches for 17 yards).
Cedar 7 – 0 – 7 – 7 < 21
Desert Hills 0 – 10 – 0 – 13 < 23
C < Ursua 44 run (Rogers kick) 6:18
DH < Kiser 6 pass from Harris (Morales-Alegria kick)
DH < Morales-Alegria kick 37 Field Goal
C < Ursua 68 run (Rogers kick)
DH < Rutledge 33 pass from Brinker (Morales-Alegria kick)
DH < Kiser 10 pass from Brinker (kick failed)
C < Halladay 25 pass from Garrett (Rogers kick)
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