When Tyler Sinsabaugh's 25-yard interception return for a touchdown gave Mesa Skyline a 28-6 lead late in the third quarter Friday night, a couple of Ironwood Ridge football fans were heard to lament, "it's over."
It wasn't over. With the threat of an 0-2 start staring at the Nighthawks, the home team rallied for 29 straight points on four touchdowns in the final 12 minutes for an improbable, come-from-behind win, 35-28.
Logan Bailey's 52-yard interception return for a touchdown in the waning minutes sealed the triumph for Ironwood Ridge, now 1-1, which plays at Laveen Chavez this Friday night.
"Being down 28-6 would worry me," said Ironwood coach Matt Johnson. "But I have a good bunch of seniors. They can play four quarters."
Player of the game Adrian Brahler, who ran for 163 yards on the night, responded to the deficit with a 22-yard run. Then, on third and 15, quarterback Tyler D'Amore found Trevor Wesley wide open for a 47-yard touchdown pass. Ben Ambrosio kicked the point after to make it 28-13.
When the Nighthawks defense stopped the Coyotes on three plays, it was clear the momentum had changed sides.
Brahler's 3-yard run converted a fourth-down play at the Skyline 40. A couple of plays later, Brahler took the handoff, but instead of running the ball, he heaved it downfield to Wesley for a 35-yard touchdown. Ambrosio's conversion made it 28-20.
After another Skyline three and out series, the Nighthawks gained possession of the football with 4:19 to play. Following a penalty, and an Ironwood Ridge fumble out of bounds, Brahler righted things with a 12-yard run. On third and seven, D'Amore scrambled, then let it fly to Matthew Walter for a 35-yard touchdown with 2:28 to play. On the conversion, Brahler took the handoff and threw it to Bailey for a 2-point conversion and a 28-28 tie.
"We've been practicing (the pass) a lot," Brahler said. "I've been doing it right in practices."
Skyline took over after a touchback. On the first play, Kenny Arvayo broke off a 15-yard run. Two plays later, Arvayo slipped and fell down as he was going right trying for the first down. Then, Bailey broke in on a pass near midfield, intercepted it and returned it 52 yards for a touchdown. After the extra point, Ironwood had its first lead of the night, 35-28, with a minute to play.
On Skyline's final series, quarterback Michael Bailey threw a ball near the end zone that fell incomplete just before time ran out.
"The crowd brought us together," Wesley said. "We knew they (Skyline) were getting tired. We woke up at halftime. It opened our eyes. We came out to play in the second half."
Brahler was a relentless force, rushing for 150 years in the second half.
"Adrian Brahler is tough, quick, and it's an honor to coach seniors like him," Johnson said.
"I have to work on coming out strong," Brahler said. "I couldn't let my teammates down. We had a whole bunch of people make good plays. We just needed that spark."
The first spark came when Brahler broke a 56-yard run for a touchdown in the third quarter to put the Nighthawks on the board after they had been blanked in the first half, 14-0. Skyline scored the game's first two touchdowns on passes by quarterback Bailey, a 17-yarder to Sinsabaugh to culminate a 66-yard, 14-play drive, and a seven-yard touchdown pass to Clint Imlay.
D'Amore completed 8 of 16 passes for 127 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Wesley caught three of those passes for 83 yards and two touchdowns. Bailey had three catches for 22 yards in addition to his interception return.
The crowd, quiet for the first three quarters, exploded in the fourth, and as the final seconds ticked away, the decibel level rose higher. For Brahler, the home fans' enthusiasm meant a great deal.
"Just hearing that crowd go wild is just the best feeling in the world," said the senior. "We just want to make everybody proud of us."
"Some games you talk about coaching, and some games you talk about players," said Johnson, celebrating his first win at Ironwood Ridge. "It wasn't about coaching today, it was about players – our seniors just showed incredible heart."
His home debut as head coach was a memorable one.
"Having to step into coach (Gary) Minor's shoes was really hard, and it's nice to have these seniors win this game and get to be a part of it," said Johnson. "It's special, there's no doubt about it."
— Luke Davis contributed to
Mesa Skyline 0 14 14 0 — 28
Ironwood Ridge 0 0 6 29 — 35
SKY — Tyler Sinsabaugh 17 pass from Michael Bailey (Shane Oiler kick)
SKY — Clint Imlay 7 pass from Bailey (Oiler kick)
IR — Adrian Brahler 56 run (pass failed)
SKY — Michael Bailey 5 run (Oiler kick)
SKY — Sinsabaugh 25 interception return (Oiler kick)
IR — Trevor Wesley 47 pass from Tyler D'Amore (Ben Ambrosio kick)
IR — Wesley 35 pass from Brahler (Ambrosio kick)
IR — Matthew Walter 35 pass from D'Amore (Brahler pass to Bailey)
IR — Logan Bailey 52 interception return (Ambrosio kick)
Ironwood Ridge statistics:
Rushing: Adrian Brahler 20-163, Tyler D'Amore 7-(-20); Passing: Tyler D'Amore 8-16-1, 127 yards, Adrian Brahler 1-1-0-35; Receiving: Trevor Wesley 3-83, Logan Bailey 3-22, Adrian Brahler 1-13, Clay Matthews 1-9, Matthew Walter 1-35.