Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Published Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 | 1:57 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014 | 1:08 p.m.
The snap spiraled a foot above Greg Benson’s head.
Faith Lutheran had decided not to punt on a fourth-and-3 play from its own 46-yard line two minutes into Friday’s game at Spring Valley. Just as the aggression appeared costly with the loose ball landing and bouncing 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage, the senior quarterback corralled it.
Benson then sidestepped a couple pass rushers and heaved a throw in the direction of receiver Mark Rubalcaba. The 5-foot-9 senior leapt and snared the ball out of the air.
Such was life for Faith Lutheran in a contest that ultimately decided the regular-season champion of the Division 1A Sunset region. The Crusaders got every break and made every big play in marching past the Grizzlies 17-8 to go into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed for the second straight year.
“We’re hitting our peak at the right time,” senior linebacker Alex Giuliani said. “Sky is the limit for us.”
Last year’s state champions will have an opportunity to defend their title when the postseason opens next Thursday. Faith Lutheran rides a five-game winning streak into a matchup with Sunrise No. 4 seed Boulder City.
It’s an opportunity the Crusaders aren’t taking for granted. Although considered one of the lower level’s top teams all season, a couple of upsets had left Faith Lutheran no margin for error going into Friday.
A playoff spot wasn’t promised if Faith Lutheran lost to Spring Valley.
“We worked as hard as we could this week in practice knowing nothing is guaranteed,” Giuliani said.
The determination shined through on the first drive. Including the drive-extender on the erroneous snap, Faith Lutheran paraded 61 yards down field on 11 plays in five minutes.
Benson completed six of eight pass attempts on the first possession including four to Rubalcaba, who scored on a 10-yard touchdown.
“The thing that’s impressive to me is, everyone knows he’s our main weapon and despite what they try to do to press him or double-team him, he finds a way to make big plays,” Faith Lutheran coach Vernon Fox said of Rubalcaba. “He’s not that big of a kid, but he plays big. He plays with a lot of heart.”
Rubalcaba tallied 10 catches for 144 yards for the night. Benson completed only six passes for 28 yards to other receivers.
Given the early efficiency, it would have been hard to believe that Spring Valley could hold Faith Lutheran out of the end zone for the rest of the game. But that’s what transpired, as the Grizzlies often moved the ball more seamlessly than the Crusaders.
Spring Valley rode senior running back Michael Bianco, who finished with 22 carries for 111 yards, all night but particularly in the middle of the second quarter. The Grizzlies drove 68 yards before a rash of Crusaders including linebackers Cole Thomas and Don Giuliano hit quarterback Christian Tasi, who had 88 total yards on the evening, and forced a fumble.
Giuliani scooped the ball and returned it 88 yards for a touchdown.
“It was huge,” Giuliani said. “It was nothing I did, just thank God for the ball falling into my hands.”
The play likely produced a 14-point swing right before halftime. Spring Valley found itself in an expansive hole despite having more first downs and identical yardage to Faith Lutheran after 24 minutes of play.
The Grizzlies’ situation didn’t improve in the second half. The Crusaders’ defensive front, led by tackles for loss by sophomore Jalen Flowers, bore down and forced an immediate three-and-out.
Faith Lutheran added a 31-yard field goal from Ryan Callan in the ensuing possession after starting to rely more heavily on running back Christian Marshall, who had 13 carries for 92 yards.
“Our special teams played really solid,” Fox said. “That’s a neutralizer. That’s something that’s an unspoken factor in the game.”
Special teams came up in a major way again with four and a half minutes to go when senior Tyler Mahan recovered a muffed punt. It was one of three takeaways for the Faith Lutheran defense in the second half, as Robby Schwartz ceased a Spring Valley drive with an interception and Giuliani ended the game by recovering a fumble forced by Flowers.
Spring Valley’s only points also came off of a turnover. Defensive back Marcus Dawson recovered a fumble in Faith Lutheran territory to set up a 17-yard touchdown run from Raheem Edmonds.
The Grizzlies could never hold onto the ball for long enough to score again.
“Earlier this year, there was a game against Clark where we had multiple turnovers and we never could really recover,” Fox said. “So we know what it’s like to be on the other end of that.”